A Conversation with Kate Stebe

Winter 2007

Stebe, whose research on fluid interfaces involves the physical properties of drops and bubbles, is the chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Stebe, whose research on fluid interfaces involves the physical properties of drops and bubbles, is the chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Last July, professor Kate Stebe became chair of the Whiting School’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, a rapidly growing department with a faculty of 13.

A member of the engineering school’s faculty since 1991, Stebe has served on the university’s Academic Council and was previously director of her department’s graduate program. Her research interests include the engineering of fluid interfaces, nanomaterials, and microfluidics. She holds a joint appointment with the Department of Biomedical Engineering and secondary appointments in Materials Science and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.

At the start of the fall semester, the magazine’s Abby Lattes sat down with Stebe, to talk about her vision for the future of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

ChemBE is a fast-growing department. Can you discuss that growth and how you’re managing it?

This year alone we have 120 freshmen and have increased our graduate student yield by 100 percent— from 8 to 16 new graduate students.

At the graduate level, we introduced a revised curriculum this past fall. We’ve returned to the fundamental courses in each discipline and amended them to include more timely examples. We’ve added required non-classical courses in topics such as interfaces and materials and others that emphasize opportunities and techniques in Biomolecular engineering.

At the undergraduate level, we’ve also seen explosive growth. This growth is due in part to students’ understanding of the scope of the problems we attack and their relevance to bio-related industries, such as protein-based pharmaceuticals and lab-on-a-chip devices. Meeting the challenges this growth presents while honoring our commitment to quality education will require care, focus, creativity, and plain old hard work.

In 2002 the department changed its name from Chemical Engineering to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. What prompted that change?

This department is built on a clear understanding of our strengths. We were a chemical engineering department with half of our faculty working as applied scientists on biological themes. Our redefinition was a recognition of this strength and where we knew we could make the greatest impact.

We have two centers of excellence in the department—biomolecular engineering and our deep expertise in interfaces. We’re configured very tightly around these areas and poised to do fundamental work at their intersection.

How do you view advances in the field and your role as department chair?

Chemical engineering expertise in interfaces, made possible through our ability to control surfaces at the molecular level, now has important applications in micro- or nano-fluidics devices, micro mechanical electrical systems, and controlling the interactions of nanomaterials.

Since the early 1990s, there’s been a lot of elegant work done by chemical engineers in bio-related problems—where complex ideas about chemical systems far from equilibrium are applied to our understanding of synthesis in cells and cell-cell interactions, for example. There are important applications to this work that range from using cells to produce chemical products to understanding plaque formation in heart disease or metastatic events in cancer.

As a department, we all took part in the process of redefining who we are and have a highly unified vision about the direction in which we’re going. Now I’m in the driver’s seat to implement the vision.

What is the most fundamental element to the program’s success?

Our faculty. They are individual experts in their fields and highly integrated throughout the department and across other departments, divisions, and research centers and institutes. They’re young and ready to move in a common direction to pull us forward. This balance of individual expertise and shared vision makes the department a special place.

What message do you give to female students looking at careers in academia?

The life balance issues will always be there for women and I talk about this with my students. For example, when I go home, I’m “Mom,” and turn my attention to my 5-year-old daughter. A tremendous advantage to working in academia is that we’re measured according to whether or not we’re productive and creative, not the hours we’ve logged. It’s an incredibly demanding profession, but it is also flexible. I don’t know if the opportunities created by that flexibility are always made clear to young people of either gender considering academic careers. It is possible to make it all work and it can be very rewarding.

What’s on the horizon?

We’re defining what the field should be. We’re attacking problems on the molecular and nano scale. We are poised to make a strong contribution to the fundamental issues in our field. It’s an exciting time in our department.