(UCR/Carrie Rosema)

Building the Future

Dean Christopher Lynch brings a wealth of experience and ambition to the Bourns College of Engineering.

By Holly Ober

This fall, the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering welcomed Christopher S. Lynch as dean. Lynch came to UC Riverside from UCLA, where he served as department chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Samueli School of Engineering.

Among his many recognitions, Lynch has received an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the SPIE Smart Materials and Structures Lifetime Achievement Award, an American Society of Mechanical Engineers Aerospace Division Adaptive Structures Prize, and the American Society for Engineering Education Young Mechanics Educator of the Year Award.

Lynch joined UCLA’s faculty in 2007 from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a professor of mechanical engineering and an associate chair for administration. From 2008–13, he was director of the Master’s of Science Online Program at UCLA. Lynch received his master’s degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering from UC Santa Barbara.

He took time during his busy first week to chat about what brought him to Riverside and share glimpses of what he envisions for Bourns over the next five years.

What drew you to UC Riverside?

When discussions began about potentially coming here as dean, the first thing I did was dig through the website down to each individual faculty member. I looked at their research, their publication records, and read some papers. The deeper I dug, the more it became clear that even though BCOE is very young, the faculty hiring has just been extraordinary. The faculty here are phenomenally good. Another major motivator is — and I think this is a fair comparison because this is an issue across the UC system — in the fall of 2017, UCLA had 27,000 applications for 800 engineering positions. The incoming freshmen had a median unweighted GPA of 4.0. In my view, when you’re accepting such a small percentage of students, the school is no longer successfully completing its mission to educate the public.

UCR faces a similar situation. We have roughly 400 positions in engineering for 10,000 applications. The difference between UCR and UCLA is that UCLA is built out. They can’t get any bigger. UCR has the ability and the plans to expand. I think this is a good opportunity to expand engineering education in the UC system over the coming five years.

Did UCR’s community efforts play a role in your decision?

Learning about things like the California Air Resources Board moving their headquarters near campus to further their close collaboration with the Center for Environmental Research and Technology. There’s a tremendous network here of people working together to do research, transition that research into applications, and move those applications through our industrial programs. For example, the state of California is transitioning to an entirely renewable energy system and Riverside is the lead in this area. As an engineer, it’s exciting to be part of this and in a position to facilitate the growth of these activities.

You’re talking about the bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed in September that requires the electrical grid to be carbon free by 2045. How is UCR involved?

The state’s already leaning on us. We do a large amount of research with the California Energy Commission, so we have projects related to developing smart grids and microgrids of large battery banks with solar cells that can power an industrial building. Riverside is and will continue to be a major focal point for energy independence.

What opportunities for growth do you see at Bourns?

Over the five-year period of my dean appointment, I see us going from about 125 faculty members to about 150. At that stage, we’re going to run out of lab and building space. A new building has gone through the complete planning process but remains to be financed. Getting funding for that building and setting the stage so we can expand into it are very high priorities of mine.

What are some of the challenges to this growth?

The challenges are always financial. Philanthropy is incredibly important to us. For example, we need to create endowed chairs to enable us to recruit world-renowned faculty. We’re going to work closely with our partners and build on the wonderful alumni support we already have to generate the resources we need. But we are only a 25-year-old college. We don’t have 100 years of developing a donor base. I can’t build a $100 million endowment in my term as dean, but I can work to get it started, so in 20 years we are in that position.

What is your plan to recruit more underrepresented minorities to study engineering at UCR?

I have worked on developing programs for underrepresented minorities since my early days at Georgia Tech. I was heavily involved with their 3–2 program, in which students attend historically black Spelman College or Clark Atlanta University for three years and Georgia Tech for two, earning both liberal arts and engineering degrees. At UCLA, I worked with Robin Petgrave of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum in Compton to establish a robotics program that would stretch from elementary school to Compton High School. I think we’ve made some progress that I want to continue at UCR.

What about women?

Getting more women into engineering is a challenge in some areas and not others. We have more difficulty recruiting women into mechanical engineering than bioengineering. A colleague in chemistry at UCLA suggested that one reason around 50 percent of UCLA’s chemistry students are women is because high schools teach chemistry. Now that the FIRST Robotics program has started to bring mechanical engineering into high schools, we can address some of this. Through high school programs, we might have more success recruiting both women and underrepresented minorities into engineering.

Can you give us the elevator pitch version of your research?

I study piezoelectric materials. These are materials like human muscle that change shape when you apply voltage to them. I use these materials to build small motors to make ultrasound devices that can do imaging. I don’t do the imaging, but I work on the actuators that can produce the acoustic signals. I also work on creating waves on the surfaces of microchips that can interact with the magnetic behavior of materials for various sensors. Shape-changing materials that can be controlled with voltage pretty much sums it up.

How did you spend your first week as dean?

I spent my first day, Sept. 1, in China with Winston Chung and his family. And now, here I am, sitting in my office in the building named after him. I think that’s neat. I’ll end tomorrow at a Riverside County community event where I’ll introduce one of our faculty as the keynote speaker.

Visit engr.ucr.edu for more information on the Bourns College of Engineering.