A Catalyst for Collaborative Growth

An internationally known biologist, Ralph S. Quatrano is dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the Spencer T. Olin Professor. In his role as dean, he is helping develop synergistic endeavors between departments and across schools. (Joe Angeles)

Giving 110 percent for the team is nothing new for Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science. As the son of a coach, and a Colgate University sports scholarship recipient, Quatrano seems a perfect pick to lead the engineering school toward an academic touchdown, by expanding collaborations with industry and within the university.

The discipline, dedication and competitive spirit he acquired playing football and lacrosse have stayed with Quatrano long after his college career aspirations shifted from coaching to biology. Since arriving at Washington University in 1998, his team-player and leadership skills have catapulted him from chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences to dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and, in 2010, to his current position: dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

“A lot of the attributes of sports play into what I do today,” Quatrano says. “And I like to win; I like to be the best.”

A Vision For the Future

Quatrano has officially served as dean of the engineering school since July 2010. But already he has designed and is implementing an ambitious strategic plan to broaden the school’s connections.

Engineering has a long history of working with the School of Medicine and with Arts & Sciences. But the Olin Business School? The Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts? Yes and yes. In the 21st century, there is hardly a field that doesn’t further enhance the quantitative and analytical skills of engineers and benefit from those attributes.

For example, a two-week course in January paired WUSTL engineering students with political science and economics undergrads. As a team, they considered nuclear, thermal, solar and other energy sources for specific locations, with the engineering students assessing technical feasibilities and the others examining economic and policy issues.

The result of such teamwork is more comprehensive analysis. Similar efforts spearheaded by Quatrano will combine engineering and architecture students in projects to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

One already successful collaboration teamed up engineering undergrads who invented an LED dance floor with Olin students who created a business plan for renting it out. The joint effort exemplifies how project management and other business skills — abilities many engineering alumni had to learn on the job — are critical to engineers.

“After engineers come out of school, they’re often immediately put onto a team. They’ve got a project, and it has to be managed; there may be constraints in time, budget and policy,” Quatrano says. “It’s critical to include a taste of these things in our undergraduate curriculum.”

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton is not surprised that Quatrano is already gaining ground in his execution of more collaborative programs.

“Ralph has demonstrated the unique ability to work across disciplines within and develop strong partnerships with people and institutions outside the university,” Wrighton says. “The School of Engineering has already benefited from Ralph’s leadership, and I look forward to seeing his many accomplishments in the era ahead.”

A “Nice Guy” Who Finishes First

An internationally known scientist, Quatrano has attained tremendous prestige in the field of biology. Among his many achievements are five years as editor-in-chief of top journal The Plant Cell and a lead author of a groundbreaking study mapping the moss genome.

“People ask me how it feels to be a molecular cellular biologist in an engineering school,” Quatrano says.

His answer? The position is a great fit. Adding current efforts to amass engineering expertise to his past and present laboratory work, Quatrano has gained a keen understanding of the field. As the Spencer T. Olin Professor and professor of biology, Quatrano shared a five-year grant with a systems engineer. He now shares another grant with an engineer in computer science.

Quatrano’s extensive interactions with Monsanto and the Danforth Plant Science Center, along with his relevant academic and research career and diverse leadership background, have produced a unique skill set.

“My close relationships, especially with the medical school and the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences, put me in a pretty good position to explore further integrating the engineering school with others,” Quatrano says.

In addition to the kinds of qualifications that characterize a great résumé, Quatrano has a leadership style that creates rapport and garners respect as well as results, according to his colleagues.

“I have the highest regard for Ralph’s leadership, and I think others do, too,” says Edward S. Macias, PhD, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “His integrity and dedication plus his sincerity make him a great leader.”

“He does a good job of putting people at ease, both students and faculty, and listening to what people have to say,” says Shelly Sakiyama-Elbert, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, who was involved in the engineering dean search.

“Putting people at ease” is a Quatrano attribute also noted by Nick Benassi, associate dean of engineering. Benassi’s first meeting with Quatrano is an event he’ll never forget. Waiting at Quatrano’s door, he spotted the new dean hurrying down the hall, two cups of coffee in hand.

“He says, ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I stopped to get us coffee,’” Benassi remembers. “He didn’t even know me; that gesture set the whole tone for our relationship.”

WUSTL Is A Family Affair

Although Quatrano was born in Elmira, N.Y., he now calls St. Louis home.

Unexpectedly, several family members have also landed in the Gateway City. A professorship in neurology at the School of Medicine brought his son-in-law from San Francisco to St. Louis along with Quatrano’s daughter and their two high-school-age children. His wife’s daughter and her husband recently arrived in town after he accepted a teaching position with the OB/GYN department.

Two more grandchildren are also here. A son living in the Boston area has a daughter who recently graduated from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and a son working toward his Arts & Sciences degree, with an eye on medical school. And it’s possible his high-school-age granddaughter in Charleston may also wind up at the university.

That Washington University has brought so much of his nomadic family together, something he never dreamed possible, only strengthens his commitment to St. Louis and the university.

“I did not take this position as a stepping stone to something else,” Quatrano says. “I want to see this be successful; I want the university and the faculty to work with me and make this happen.”

Nancy Fowler is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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