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Q & A: New chair drives enthusiastic vision for success

Professor Vish Subramaniam was appointed chair of The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) at The Ohio State University, effective June 20, 2016.  In a news release, Dean David B. Williams of the College of Engineering said, “Vish has articulated a compelling vision for the college’s largest department and has done so with energy and enthusiasm…his multi-faceted prowess and stellar reputation as a collaborator will serve Ohio State Engineering superbly.”

Subramaniam earned BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, a PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University and was a University Postdoctoral Fellow at Ohio State, where he conducted research on gas laser kinetics.  Today, his research focuses on the interaction between weak, low-frequency electromagnetic fields and tissues, cells and similar biological systems.  According to Subramaniam, the research could have profound consequences for understanding and treating cancer metastasis, continuous and non-invasive detection of malaria, detection and imaging of solid tumors, accelerating wound healing and combating antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections – all critical areas of interest in human health. 

In a conversation with department faculty and staff prior to his appointment as chair, Subramaniam shared a glimpse of his enthusiastic vision for MAE, including developing a long-range strategic plan, increasing awareness of departmental research and establishing a positive workplace environment.  He believes in distributed leadership and shared governance to create buy-in, describing his leadership style as collaborative.  “We need to remove the administrative hurdles that impede progress,” Subramaniam said. 

Quality of student placement is foremost on his agenda, as is increasing MAE’s relevance to peer communities and expanding educational impact.  His overall philosophy is one of inclusion.  “We need to be relatable,” he noted.   

Poised and ready to take the helm of the largest department in the College of Engineering, Subramaniam shared some thoughts on his new role, his perspective on management and leadership and his focus for the future.

Q: In a recent interview, Dean David Williams said that growing his leadership team is the number one priority.  “Becoming a department chair is not an end to your scholarly career, but rather another phase,” he said.   How will you approach this new leadership phase of your career?

I am excited and energized for this next phase of my career.  I have been a faculty member in MAE for 28 years and during that time I have witnessed a lot of change in how our department operates, changes in the political climate and financial demands on our university, and the changing demographic of our student body.  I strongly believe that we will be a better and stronger department by adapting to change and being innovators in teaching and scholarship.  I have held various leadership positions in the department, including graduate studies chair, and feel excited to expand upon that experience.


Q: During his 2020 Vision for Ohio State address, President Michael Drake discussed a commitment to access, affordability and excellence.  What parallels do you see for MAE in these overriding themes?

One of my main goals as chair is to increase the diversity and inclusion of students, faculty and staff.  In order to accomplish this goal, we need to identify existing barriers to entry that under-represented minority applicants and women face, and work hard to address these issues systematically.  I believe strongly that a broad range of voices and opinions will strengthen our department and increased diversity will allow us to realize our full potential.


Q: As incoming chair, what departmental challenges have you identified and how will you address them?    

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is in developing a collaborative and team-building approach to a significant reorganization of department governance.  Another challenge is in changing some of the practices that worked well when we were smaller in size, but are no longer effective.  There are significant gains to be made in reducing administrative burdens when managing three quality graduate programs and two outstanding and large undergraduate programs.  Such change is necessary in order to focus on our principal mission of education and research.


Q:  How will you create and sustain a sense of mission for the department while effectively managing change?

I envision the position of department chair as being primarily focused on strategic planning and growth.  As a result, I plan on reorganizing the governance structure in MAE, creating thematic associate chair positions that unify the various programs while retaining their unique identities.  This structure will also allow more effective succession planning in the future.  Additionally, with the workload more efficiently delegated and managed within our administrative team, I anticipate greater interest in these leadership positions in the future among our younger faculty and staff.  The reorganization will result in increased diversity of candidates, allowing us to be better innovators going forward.


Q: The College of Engineering, including MAE, is the single most successful fundraising arm within the university, exceeding campaign fundraising goals and affirming the commitment of our alumni to Ohio State.   What is your message for MAE’s alumni and how will you strengthen our alumni network going forward?

Our alumni are our source of strength and stability in an otherwise uncertain world.  When federal funding is in decline and the amount of funding from industrial sources fluctuates with time, it is our alumni whose tireless volunteering of their time and resources sustain our education and research efforts.  We would not be the department we are today but for our alumni.  I plan to continue to engage our alumni, keeping them informed about the innovative educational approaches and research discoveries constantly emanating from our department, and building on the excellent work of those who preceded me.  I believe there are some exciting times ahead for both our undergraduate and graduate programs and I cannot wait to share these successes with our alumni, involving and integrating them into our future.

Read more about Dr. Subramaniam's appointment as department chair at