Published October 30, 2017
For Krishna Rajan, diversity is more than just being different. Diversity is not simply about including people from different backgrounds, but rather, bringing them together to enrich the community as a whole.
“To achieve this, you need the right people and a nurturing environment,” says Rajan, an internationally recognized expert on materials informatics and the Erich Bloch Endowed Chair of UB’s new Department of Materials Design and Innovation (MDI).
Rajan has designed MDI to create a new paradigm for materials research and education, harnessing information and data science tools to advance knowledge discovery in materials science in a highly accelerated manner.
“Since MDI was a brand new department, it gave me the opportunity to think about the best way to create such an environment,” he says.
“In building this department, intellectual and disciplinary diversity was, of course, a given,” Rajan says. “But how do we hire new faculty to ensure inclusion in the most holistic and meaningful way?”
Looking at the prospect of building a new department, Rajan acknowledges that technical and disciplinary strengths were critical.
“In our search process, once we identified the most qualified candidates, the search committee then delved deeply to learn more from their personal journeys,” he says.
“We were trying to glean whether or not they would value working in a diverse environment, and whether they would be able to help build a department that not just appreciates, but requires diverse perspectives and experiences to succeed.”
In that sense, Rajan says, being different was not enough. “Did their educational and work experiences indicate that they thrived when challenged to get outside familiar and comfortable environments?
“And by that I am referring to many things,” he says. “For example, living in a new and unfamiliar place, working in different kinds of institutions — academia, industry, government labs and collaborating across broad, disciplinary boundaries.”
In the past two years, MDI has hired 14 tenure-track faculty and four research faculty, Rajan says. “Half of the tenure-track faculty are women. They bring with them stellar resumes and diverse educational and work experiences from around the globe.
“The remaining faculty are just as spectacular, with amazing multicultural experiences.”
Rajan points out MDI has hired faculty who have earned graduate degrees overseas, including Americans who have earned their PhDs in a foreign university.
“For example, one of our faculty has her PhD from a doctoral program that is jointly hosted across two different countries,” Rajan says.
“Such experiences challenge us to work in and adapt to environments that are very different from what we are familiar with,” he says. “And so, I feel that such a person can well understand and empathize with others — faculty, staff and students — who find themselves in a new and unfamiliar place.
“For me, diversity is also about attitudes, mindsets, viewpoints and ways of thinking that promote inclusivity that brings out the best features in the human experience,” he says.
“Faculty who have had such varied experiences have stretched themselves to step out of their comfort zone to achieve professional excellence, and will therefore be less threatened by new ways of thinking and receptive to different points of view.”
The goal, Rajan says, is to show how intellectual and social inclusion at all levels within MDI can promote an atmosphere of excellence in creativity. He emphasizes that having that environment in the classroom, the program and the department is important.
“Nearly half of the 25 students now enrolled in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation are women,” he says. “We want to ensure inclusion at every level.
“When our students, consciously or not, see and experience diverse perspectives and opinions, it then spills over into their day-to-day interactions with everyone else,” Rajan says.
Why is diversity important in a university?
“Yes, we have faculty, staff and students from around the world and we need to welcome them and provide them with an environment that lets them flourish. But it is more than that,” he says.
“At a research university, we study some very difficult problems to solve pressing needs for the benefit of society, and the only way that we can address them is by bringing together multiple perspectives. We cannot do that unless our faculty has the depth and breadth of skills and experiences to engage with others in a meaningful way,” Rajan says.
“The MDI faculty bring that ability and will serve as a role model for students to prepare them to work in a diverse world.”