ISE alumni now leaders in academia

Mike Helenthal
6/20/2017 5:07:34 PM

ISE Alumni are moving into positions of leadership across the academic engineering community, notably: Mun Choi, BSGE 1987, President of the University of Missouri System. Joseph Hartman, BSGE 1992, Dean of Francis College of Engineering. Jeffrey Linderoth, BSGE 1992, Professor and Department Chair, Industrial & Systems Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mun Choi, President of the University of Missouri System
Mun Choi, President of the University of Missouri System

Mun Choi, President of the University of Missouri System

Mun Choi, a 1987 General Engineering graduate who was named the president of the 75,000-student University of Missouri system in March, credits ISE and his degree in General Engineering (since renamed Systems Engineering and Design) for giving him the depth of knowledge and confidence to take on ever-increasing leadership roles over the course of his career.

“I chose General Engineering because I really enjoyed the broad perspective it provided, and because you could minor in areas that weren’t necessarily natural matches, like business or even Spanish,” he says. “Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d end up in administration or leading a university of this size.”

But that breadth of knowledge—of systems, of developing problem-solving teams, of measuring performance—led Choi down the path of university leadership.

Choi’s family emigrated from South Korea to Chicago in 1973 when he was only 9 years old. Upon receiving his PhD from Princeton in 1992, he served at several institutions, including NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland (since renamed the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field), and the National Research Council’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory. In 1998, he became an associate professor and the associate head of Mechanical Engineering (his academic minor) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It was there that I discovered I really enjoyed building teams of students and faculty in which to tackle large problems,” he says. “I found that I had the ability to bring people together and lead large groups, which goes back to my training in General Engineering, where I developed the ability to think things through in a systematic way, and to use metrics-based performance to measure success.”

Choi’s research concentration has been on sooting and radiation on combustion and soot diagnostic techniques, and he collaborated on research with NASA throughout his career up until his appointment as University of Missouri president.

It was his ability to build research-focused teams that led to Choi’s rise up the academic leadership ladder. In 2001, he was chosen as Drexel University’s associate dean for research and graduate research. In 2008 he was picked by the University of Connecticut to serve as its engineering dean, and by 2012 he was named the university’s provost and executive vice president.

“It’s been a combination of being in the right place at the right time, but also of having mentors that have helped lead me in the right direction,” he says.

Among his ISE mentors was Brian Lilly, a PhD student when Choi was an undergraduate student, and Henrique Reis, director of ISE’s Nondestructive Testing and Evaluation Laboratory, who, as a faculty member, brought forth a hands-on approach Choi says he has never forgotten.

“[Professor Reis] didn’t flinch when it came to showing students how to use specific pieces of equipment, and he was so patient,” Choi recalls. “He demonstrated to me just how much the faculty at the University of Illinois was committed to experiential learning.”

Choi says his new role as university president is calling on those hands-on, team-building skills like never before—skills he first learned at the Illinois.

“My background in General Engineering has allowed me to work through some complex problems, both academically and as an administrator,” he says. “I don’t expect the people I work with to follow me, but to join me in developing and implementing strategies.”


Joseph Hartman, Dean of Francis College of Engineering, UMass Lowell

Joseph Hartman earned his General Engineering degree from the University of Illinois in 1992, along with an international minor in Germanic studies. He also credits ISE’s well-rounded approach for his 2013 appointment to deanship of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell’s Francis College of Engineering.

“Getting a General Engineering degree probably had something to do with my eventually becoming an administrator,” he says. “I like to think that in my current role as a dean, my job is to solve problems and continuously improve our school. Those are things I learned through my education.”

Hartman, who continues to serve on ISE’s Alumni Advisory Board, also credits his study of engineering economic decision analysis at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees.

“When I was a freshman, my biggest fear was choosing a major, even in engineering, that would box me into a corner and potentially a career path that was not right for me,” he says. “This drove my decision to pursue General Engineering—I knew that it would never close doors to opportunities.”

Hartman, who also was a member of the Marching Illini band and participated in host of other extracurricular activities, never doubted he had made the right choice when he joined ISE.

“One quickly learned that the faculty in the department had a wide range of interests—control, design, robotics, optimization, manufacturing, et cetera,” he says. “While this did not surprise me, the possibilities were wider than I had imagined.”

He says the ISE program was so completely rigorous that his Engineer in Training exam was easy, “because we had already covered it all, in depth.”

His mentors at the ISE included Professors Deborah Thurston and Jim Carnahan, both of whom introduced him to the study of multidisciplinary decision-making and design.

“I was hooked,” he recalls. “It was because of that experience that I wanted to go on to graduate school and pursue an advanced degree, and her interests in optimization and decision-making led me to ultimately choose Industrial and Systems Engineering. I have always been fascinated by the interface of finance and engineering.“

He says he has never worked so hard or learned so much in a class than in Carnahan’s control class.

 Carnahan and Thurston went out of their way to assist and guide him towards graduate work.

“They are the biggest reasons why I am in academia and a big part of why I have been successful,” he says. “Being an engineering graduate from Illinois really does mean something.  I know that the pedigree has opened doors that would not have been possible otherwise.”

Hardly a day goes by as an administrator that Hartman, whose research has focused on designing performance-based warranties, doesn’t use his engineering training.

“My administrative philosophy is driven by my engineering background, as my decision-making is driven by data,” he says. “While emotion and opinion will enter into any decision-making process, data-driven decision making truly allows you to be objective and fair.  I try to use data as the basis for nearly every decision I make, as any good engineer would.”


Jeffrey Linderoth, Professor and Department Chair, Industrial & Systems Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jeffrey Linderoth earned a BS (with highest honors) in General Engineering in 1992.

Last year, Linderoth became chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Linderoth chose General Engineering as an undergraduate student because he wasn’t yet sure what academic path he wanted to take. He’s never regretted choosing Illinois or ISE.

“Once I started in the General Engineering curriculum, I really liked the breadth of engineering experiences it provided and the real emphasis on engineering design,” he says.  “Around my junior year, I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school, and the general engineering curriculum offered some nice flexibility for me to tailor my curriculum to take more math classes to prepare for that jump.”

Linderoth says he never aspired to serve on the administrative side of engineering, it just progressed naturally.

“The University of Illinois experience definitely influenced my decision to become an academic,” he says. “My General Engineering background, with the emphasis on communication skills and project-based problem solving, prepared me well for the challenges of being a department administrator.”

He says his career in structural optimization research came about because of a “life-changing mentor,” ISE Professor Scott Burns.

Professor Emeritus Burns also remembers Linderoth fondly.  Burns says,"I took advantage of a program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates, which provided additional funding for an established NSF grant. I was able to recruit the best and brightest of our undergraduates and hire them to explore newly emerging areas of optimization. They also had to present their findings at a national conference dedicated to undergraduate research. Jeff jumped at this opportunity with enthusiasm and impressed me with his motivation and ability to work independently. It doesn't surprise me one bit that he has risen to a position of leadership."

Linderoth says, “I wouldn't be an academic today if it was not for him, and I owe him a debt I could never repay... Professor Burns gave us the freedom to investigate the areas of optimization that most interested us.”

Those early lessons carry over to his administrative philosophy.

“In academia, the most valuable resources are our faculty,” he says. “To be successful, you need to hire very top people, and then to just remove barriers for them doing great things.”

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