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Introducing Dean Christopher Schuh

Dean Schuh speaking to a crowd

Christopher Schuh (PhD '01) has always had an affinity for the Midwest. A native of northern Wisconsin, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Soon after, he moved to Evanston and joined Northwestern Engineering's doctoral program in materials science.

Schuh's journey eventually brought him to the East Coast, where he built a renowned career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, he conducted trailblazing research in metallurgy, launched startup companies, educated hundreds of engineering students, and led the university's materials science department for almost a decade.

Today, Schuh has returned to the familiar halls of the Technological Institute—but not just as an alumnus. In June, he was named dean of the McCormick School of Engineering.

As he embarks on his new role, Schuh took time to discuss his engineering background, the importance of research translation, his Northwestern roots, and what excites him most about being dean.

How did you become interested in engineering?

I've always been drawn to mathematical ways of thinking and data-driven decision-making. I enjoy having mathematical certainty about what I'm doing, and engineering is a natural place where those skills are useful. I also enjoy engineering because it integrates vertically, from fundamental science all the way to products—it's integral at many levels of the processes that drive innovation.

I love scientific discovery and thinking deeply about how things work, working with microscopes, doing computer simulations. If you understand how things work, then to me the next logical step is to start tinkering and making them work in different ways. That connection between how things work and making things work is what engineering is all about.

Finally, and more broadly, I've always found engineering interesting because it is goal driven. There's always a story behind the problems engineers are trying to solve, and it's often concerning human beings. Engineering is a very humanist endeavor. I like the idea that what I do contributes to the betterment of humankind.

Dean Christopher Schuh at the graduate welcome luncheon

Most recently, you were chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. What's your favorite memory from your time there?

I'm most proud of the connections I made with students. After I became head of the materials science department in 2010, some of my undergraduate students got together and printed T-shirts with a photoshopped image of me wearing the Iron Man suit. I felt a sense of community recognition, that they cared and supported me. That was very important to me.

You've written that it's important for engineers to balance scientific discovery with an understanding of the marketplace. Why do you think research translation—moving technologies from the lab into industry—is so important, especially today?

Engineers are the fulcrum between the research lab and the marketplace. And the marketplace represents humanity. As the planet matures, the needs of humanity become bigger and more complicated and interconnected—from the environment and sustainability to AI to resource management to health. The solutions to these challenges are rooted in scientific research, and engineers serve as the bridge between these two worlds. Not every single engineer needs to connect those worlds—some will focus on fundamental research, others will work more with products—but as a field, this is our function.

What is your own experience translating research to marketplace?

I've launched several startups tied to my research, which focuses on metallurgy and materials science. As an industry, metallurgy is rather mature, in that we produce a lot of metals at a very large scale. But this industry largely grew up in the market a hundred years ago. The challenges at that time were very different; it was about making simpler products in very high volumes. Since then, there's been 100 years of intervening science. As an engineer in this field, I wanted to take all that new science and figure out how to leverage it in this large and complicated industry.

My latest company, Foundation Alloy, is about designing metals in such a way that they have significant advantages when combined with the new modes of metal part production, such as 3D printing or additive manufacturing. With our new materials, these production processes use less energy, making our products more sustainable. These metals also facilitate the restructuring of supply chains, which require parts to be printed on demand, digitally, and using low energy. My entire postulate is that the manufacturing of the future will need metals designed for digital manufacturing, and that's what the company is focused on right now.

Why did you pick Northwestern to earn your PhD in materials science? How did your experience here shape your career?

For me, graduate school was about achieving a greater depth of understanding, both on the scientific side and also on the marketplace side.

Northwestern felt unique in that regard. McCormick's materials science program was incredible, but I was also able to take courses in entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management while I was here, as well as complete a minor in applied mathematics. This approach helped me vertically align my education and prepare me for the rest of my career. Not only did I get a deep education in materials science research, I also explored mathematical modeling and started to think about entrepreneurship. Northwestern is where all of that happened for me.

Dean Christopher Schuh
Dean Christopher Schuh speaks to a group at the graduate student welcome luncheon.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time as a PhD student?

Early on in my PhD, in my adviser David Dunand's lab in Cook Hall, I had a mountain of data on my desk, and I was practicing my new skills in mathematical modeling to try and understand it. There was a moment where the model and the data overlapped, and one explained the other. I felt victorious elation in that moment as the data and my own deep thinking literally came together to explain something for me.

You mentioned your PhD adviser, Professor David Dunand. What role do mentors play for aspiring researchers and engineering students?

A great mentor serves many functions. Certainly, one is to help you analyze yourself and better understand your own psychology. Mentors hold your feet to the ground and make sure that you understand reality and do not become deluded. A great mentor is encouraging but frank, always helping you understand the real situation and where you sit in it.

Another important role of a mentor is to encourage you to think outside of your normal limits, not to be too narrowly focused. A mentor encourages you to go to the edge of your comfort zone, expand your horizons, and embrace moments of uncertainty and use them to grow. I;ve had fantastic mentors over my career. They've always told me what reality looks like while encouraging me to push my own limits.

Why did you want to become dean of Northwestern Engineering? What excites you the most about stepping into this position at Northwestern?

Being the dean of engineering is a great role to be both technically oriented and people oriented at the same time. As I mentioned, I enjoy the concepts of vertical integration and of the fulcrum between fundamentals and markets. I like having a foot in both of those camps, and leaders in science and engineering work exactly in this space.

I look forward to helping people liberate their creativity and enable their innovation to achieve their goals. It doesn't get more rewarding than knowing you've helped people succeed. To do that here with this incredible faculty, staff, and students—it's frankly the opportunity of a lifetime.

Dean Christopher Schuh greeting students
Dean Christopher Schuh greets students at the graduate student welcome luncheon.

What are you most looking forward to during your first academic year as dean?

I'm excited to meet as many people as I can. I want to learn and listen. By the end of this year, I'm going to have a mountain of data, and I'm looking forward to sorting through it all and beginning to piece together a collective vision of where McCormick should go from here.

What are some of your interests and hobbies away from your work?

My wife, Leslie, and my two daughters, Meredith and Kira, are the center of my existence, and I love spending time with them. I am a closet baker and cake decorator. Every year on my daughters, birthdays, I make them very elaborate cakes. The exercise feels like a real union between engineering and art.

What are you looking forward to about living in Evanston and the Chicagoland area?

I've missed the openness and friendliness of Midwestern culture. It's great to be back in a place where the default setting is smiling. I've also missed the Chicagoland food scene. The pizza is so much better here.