Frequent Hiker Miles: National Parks Hold Allure for New Dean of Engineering

Monday, April 30, 2012
By: Gary Galluzzo
University of Iowa
Alec Scranton
Alec Scranton is the new dean of the University of Iowa College of Engineering. Photo by Tim Schoon.


Not only is Alec Scranton, at the age of 48, the first University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus to serve as dean of the college, but he is also a fifth-generation Iowan.

“My great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side came to Iowa from Germany and Norway, respectively, seeking the opportunities provided by the homesteading program,” says Scranton, who served as interim dean from October 2010 to April 2012. “They met each other in northwest Iowa, and were granted a homestead near Ocheyedon, Iowa, which is still in the family today. Generations of my relatives, including my mother and my grandfather, were born in the farmhouse that was built on the original homestead.”

But having deep Iowa roots hasn’t diminished his wanderlust.

“My favorite thing to do is to hike in a natural setting, and I have a goal of visiting as many national parks as I can during my lifetime,” he says.

For the record, he’s already visited 14: Badlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Death Valley, Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Great Smokey Mountains, Joshua Tree, Mammoth Caves, Redwood, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Zion. That leaves 44 national parks, some of which he will likely visit during his tenure as dean.

What attracted you to the UI in the first place?

The University of Iowa, and the state of Iowa, have always been a source of opportunity for me and my family. The best answer to your question depends upon what you mean by “the first place!”

In the very first place, I was actually born in the University Hospital when my parents were students here at Iowa. I was attracted to the university for my undergraduate studies, and received a great education. Twelve years ago, I was attracted back as a faculty member due to the opportunity to become the chair of the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, and by the engaging and supportive Iowa City community with its great schools.

I was inspired to serve as the dean of the College of Engineering by the outstanding team of dedicated faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends who devote their efforts and energies to the teaching/learning, discovery, and engagement missions of our college. It is clear to me that we have all of the elements needed to thrive and to enhance the scope and impact of the college.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

My wife, Lisa, and I were married just after I turned 21 when she was still 19. We spent our honeymoon camping in Glacier National Park. Also, all through my undergraduate years, I worked at a coin, stamp, and second-hand jewelry store in downtown Iowa City called “Stephs.”

UI Provost Barry Butler has remarked on your vision for the College of Engineering partnering with Iowa businesses. Please describe that vision.

My general approach as dean is to foster the excellence of our college, and to build strong and lasting relationships with partners who are inspired to share in our excellence. Iowa businesses are one important constituency because there are so many ways that we can establish mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships.

For example, Iowa companies can hire the outstanding engineers whom we educate, provide internship opportunities for our students, work with our faculty to define real-world design experiences, fund research projects, participate in our K-12 outreach programs, mentor students, and serve on departmental and college-wide advisory boards. I am delighted that one of my roles is to inform the leaders in the Iowa companies about the impressive programs and activities that we are undertaking, and to invite them to become a part of it.

Is the NSF Photopolymerizations Center you direct an example of such a partnership and, if so, how?

The Photopolymerizations Center is a great example of a compelling collaboration that provides tremendous value to our corporate partners while creating new and unique research and educational opportunities for our students. This is a center that performs cutting-edge research on using light, rather than heat, to drive industrial processes.

The use of light is incredibly energy efficient, and reduces airborne pollutants; therefore companies benefit directly by paying a membership fee to become part of the center. The undergraduate and graduate students who carry out the research benefit tremendously from having industrial mentors for their projects.

Please describe one or two of your 10 patents.

A number of the patents deal with new ways to use light, rather than heat, to drive reactions that form polymers. Since light is much easier to control—both spatially and temporally—you can form polymer parts and structures with light that would be impossible using heat.

Another patent is for a reversible emulsifier—like a soap—that allows oil-in-water emulsions to be formed and broken at will. Therefore, you could clean oil from a part or surface, then break the emulsion to separate the oil from the water.

What is first on your agenda as dean?

My agenda as dean is driven by the goals we recently established when the college completed its strategic planning process. Our general strategic vision is to serve society by creating engineering knowledge and educating engineers for dynamic and global careers. To meet this goal, we must continually enhance the scope and impact of our teaching, research, and engagement activities.

Therefore, I will work to provide support for our faculty and staff as they create new educational opportunities for our students, pursue exciting new directions in their research, and create new programs that engage elementary, middle, and high school students to learn about the many possibilities that a career in engineering will provide. I will also connect with our alumni, friends, and industry leaders to invite them to become part of the team and to share in the success and excellence of our college.

What is the biggest challenge facing the College of Engineering?

The College of Engineering must expand the scope and impact of its teaching, research, and outreach activities in a time of constrained resources. While this is a considerable challenge, I am confident that we have the team of faculty, staff, and students who will thrive in this environment.

What haven't I asked you that I should have asked? It’s your choice.

My choice would be to end with my understanding of the incredible power and opportunities provided by a college education, and I again reflect on my family experiences. My mother was the first female in her family to graduate from college—earning her degree here at the University of Iowa College of Education. Her college degree opened up new possibilities for her life.

The enabling impact that our university has had on my family is something that I always think about each year when I see that approximately a quarter of our incoming students are first-generation college students. I am delighted to help new generations of students consider the possibilities for their lives, and to identify a path for realizing those possibilities.