Leadership and Impact
Alumna, department chair Kristi Kiick reflects on how engineering leaders help others
What does it mean to be a leader in science and engineering? You might invent something new or discover a fundamental truth about the world—impressive feats—but that isn’t enough. Transformational leaders in science and engineering help other people.
“A leader in engineering needs to be curious, connected, and committed to identifying solutions to an entire range of challenges that face individuals and society,” says Kristi Kiick, AS89, chair of the University of Delaware Department of Biomedical Engineering and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. “Leaders in engineering also need to be compassionate, to understand the human aspect of the technical challenges that we are trying to address and of the educational programs that we are developing.”
At the 2016 inauguration of UD President Dennis Assanis, president-elect and UD alumnus Joe Biden spoke about the late Dr. Paul Dolan, a UD professor who encouraged Biden to run for office the first time even though his opponent was a well-liked incumbent.
“That made me believe,” said Biden. “That made me believe that I was worthy of doing it. Because if Paul Dolan thought I should do it—all you professors, you have such profound, profound influence.”
The message resonated with Kiick, a UD alumna, reminding her of the impact that individuals can have on others through their empathy and passion.
Top-notch materials research
Kiick is an internationally recognized inventor and an expert in the design and synthesis of biologically inspired and biologically produced materials, developing materials for treating wounds, arthroses, and surgically manipulated blood vessels. Her discoveries could ultimately help people suffering from a range of debilitating diseases and conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
A Fellow of the American Chemical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Inventors, Kiick has published over 175 articles, book chapters, and patents, and has delivered over 200 invited and award lectures. She’s received many prestigious honors and serves on the advisory and editorial boards for multiple international journals and research organizations.
From 2011 to 2019, Kiick served as the deputy dean of the College of Engineering, working with stakeholders across the university and region to develop interdisciplinary graduate and research partnerships with various industries and national laboratories. She also focused efforts internally to strengthen the college’s intellectual and physical infrastructure.
For a leader in engineering, a strong foundation in a technical discipline is essential, as is the ability to communicate across disciplines, says Kiick. For example, the continued growth of data science and computation allows engineers to connect ever more readily to data and data sets that span both physical and social sciences. This, in turn, enables engineering approaches to inform public and health policies in impactful ways.
Advancing biomedical engineering
Kiick began her role as Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in December 2020. The department recently celebrated its tenth anniversary but is already a powerhouse with four NSF CAREER Award winners, indicating the early-career research excellence of the faculty, leadership and participation in several large research programs and institutes, and high-performing alumni. For example, 95 percent of biomedical engineering alumni who received a bachelor’s degree from 2015 to 2019 are employed or pursuing higher education. They’re working in 49 states and 94 countries around the world.
Over the next five years, Kiick aims to connect faculty and their expertise to national and global initiatives in mobility, molecular therapeutics, and platforms for understanding disease. She wants to expand the reach of the department’s educational and scholarly activities into underserved communities and continue to develop leaders, from all levels of the UD biomedical engineering community, to contribute to these areas.
“We have outstanding students, educators, and scholars, with interests from the molecular to the human scale, and these are exciting times to be contributing to human health,” she says.
Kiick, who received an honors bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UD in 1989 before completing graduate degrees at the University of Georgia and University of Massachusetts Amherst, grew up in an era when science was becoming increasingly visible to the public. She has admired many scientists who have found new ways to address old challenges. Her inspiration for leadership began with her father, who was a middle-school science teacher and a high-school wrestling and track coach.
“He was always connected to our community, and seeing the sorts of activities he made happen, and the fun he would create, was foundational in ways I didn’t understand at the time,” says Kiick. “Since then, many others in my life, education and career have helped me learn new skills and find ways to channel my dedication to people, science and education. And for me, as for our President Joe Biden, a good many of them were and are right here at UD.”