Liesl Folks, PhD, an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and magnetism, has been appointed dean of the University at Buffalo’s nationally ranked School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Her appointment, which will be effective before the start of the spring semester, was announced today by UB Provost Charles F. Zukoski, who said Folks rose to the top of nearly 60 highly qualified candidates from around the world.
Folks will join UB from HGST, a hard disk drive company in San Jose, Calif., where she has worked for more than nine years, first as a researcher and since 2008 leading the development and delivery of new media advanced technologies to the marketplace.
Zukoski praised Folks’ unique blend of academic and industry experience, her ability to build partnerships with federal agencies and prominent advisory boards, as well as her body of work during a distinguished career. Folks holds 14 U.S. patents and is the author of more than 50 peer-reviewed papers. She was an author of a paper on bit-patterned magnetic recording media published by the journal Science that has been cited roughly 3,000 times.
“We are incredibly pleased to have Dr. Folks lead the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Not only does she have an exceptional track record of being at the forefront of groundbreaking research, she is a passionate educator and highly skilled leader who will ensure that the engineering school continues its upward trajectory of excellence,” Zukoski said. “Her arrival will help the university move forward with the UB 2020 strategic plan, which calls for making UB one of the nation’s premier public research universities.”
Folks will succeed Harvey Stenger Jr., who left the deanship in spring 2011 and is now president of Binghamton University. Rajan Batta, professor of industrial and systems engineering, will continue to serve as interim dean until the start of next semester.
Folks’ experience in academia includes roles as a teacher, researcher, mentor and advisor. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students, supervised postdoctoral researchers, student researchers and interns and served as a dissertation advisor to doctoral students. Her many university collaborations include serving as an advisor to Cornell University’s Center for Nanoscale Systems and collaborating with scientists at Oxford University, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State, University of Colorado, the Rochester Institute of Technology and more.
She has been an invited lecturer at prestigious universities and an organizer of many academic conferences, including the 2018 International Conference on Magnetism, which she is helping to bring back to the U.S. for the first time in 30 years.
Zukoski said Folks is the ideal person to guide the engineering school as it continues to explore new educational programs, research and partnerships to benefit students, faculty and the community, and as it develops new technologies and innovations through basic and applied research.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi said Folks is an extraordinary addition to UB’s academic leadership team. “Her stellar reputation in the nanotechnology field precedes her, and her depth and breadth of expertise are remarkable,” he added.
“Dr. Folks’ leadership experience in both academia and industry, her extensive mentorship engagement and her key advisory roles to federal agencies and national research centers have given her a uniquely multidimensional perspective and a wonderfully complex understanding of the issues, opportunities and challenges facing a world-class engineering program at a major research-intensive university.”
Engineering is a traditionally male-dominated field, but women such as Folks continue to break down barriers, Tripathi noted. She joins six other women who serve as engineering deans at institutes of higher learning (Harvard, Yale, Toronto, Purdue, Texas A&M and Florida) in the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Folks has an extensive network of professional connections. She is the first woman to serve as president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Magnetics Society. She serves on the congressionally mandated Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, facilitated by the National Academy of Sciences, and is a regular reviewer for the National Science Foundation, performing grant reviews, site visits and reverse site visits covering most major U.S. research centers in her field of expertise.
A 2008 Science article featured Folks’ role in mentoring a female PhD student at the University at California, Berkeley. Folks noted that while U.S. universities “turn out easily the best graduate students in the world” many students struggle because of a lack of mentoring. Helping students obtain advanced degrees and ushering them into the workforce was a “worthy goal,” she said.
Folks has an exemplary record of support for STEM education initiatives, from her promotion of innovative programs at the PreK-12 level, to her role in launching a magnetics summer school program through the IEEE, which provides summer study opportunities each year to nearly 100 graduate students from around the world.
The search committee was co-chaired by E. Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics, and Venu Govindaraju, SUNY Distinguished Professor of computer science and engineering. “As co-chair of the search committee, I was thrilled that UB was able to attract someone with the academic background that Liesl Folks offers,” said Pitman. “She brings tremendous intellectual credentials and a deep understanding of interdisciplinary collaboration to the deanship.”
“I am confident that she will be a superb leader for our faculty,” Govindaraju added. “Her significant leadership skills, enthusiasm and experience in forging academic and external partnerships will be a great asset to the larger university and community as well.”
Folks is familiar with upstate New York having earned an MBA at Cornell University in 2004. She said she looks forward to moving to Western New York and joining the UB community.
“I am honored and incredibly excited by this opportunity to lead this truly world-class engineering school and to contribute to the ambitious vision UB is pursuing,” she said. “I have long been acquainted with the reputation for excellence, innovation and impact that distinguish both the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the university as a whole.
“That impression just keeps growing stronger and stronger as I’ve come to know the remarkable faculty, students and staff of this school, and as I’ve talked with more of the academic, community and industry partners who have experienced that impact first-hand. I’m thrilled to be part of shaping its future as we embark on the next chapter together.”
Her appointment comes amid significant growth in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which was ranked 54th by U.S. News and World Report among the nation’s best engineering schools whose highest degree is a doctorate. The school recently opened Barbara and Jack Davis Hall, a $75 million state-of-the-art teaching and research facility.
Using resources generated by the NYSUNY 2020 legislation signed into law last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the UB engineering school is hiring dozens of faculty members to match student enrollment growth. It recently launched a cross-disciplinary education program in biomedical engineering and will play a pivotal role in development of UB’s newly designated New York State Center for Excellence in Materials Informatics, which is leveraging existing faculty expertise and recruiting additional faculty to develop and catalog new materials to be used in advanced manufacturing.
A native of Australia, Folks earned a bachelor of science degree and a doctor of philosophy, both in physics, from the University of Western Australia in Perth, where she subsequently worked as a research fellow enjoying generous external grant funding. Folks arrived in the U.S. in 1997 to work for IBM’s Almaden Research Center in Silicon Valley.
Outside of work, she hikes, mountaineers, snowboards, cycles and is an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction.