Alumni Q&A: Ioannis Miaoulis, Part I

Ioannis Miaoulis poses for a picture. (Courtesy Ioannis Miaoulis)

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ioannis (Yannis) Miaoulis (E ’83, AG ’86, EG ’87) has had a long and distinguished association with Tufts: six years as a bachelor’s, master’s, then doctoral student, 15 years as a professor of mechanical engineering and 10 years as a trustee. After serving as the youngest-ever dean of Tufts’ School of Engineering from 1994 to 2002, he went on to lead the Museum of Science, Boston as its president and director. This fall, he will become the president of Roger Williams University. The Daily sat down with him to talk about his years at Tufts.

The Tufts Daily (TD): How did you hear about Tufts and why did you choose to attend?
Ioannis Miaoulis (IM): I was a student at Athens College [in Athens, Greece] which back then used to be an all-boys school — now it’s co-ed. I wanted to study in the United States. I wanted to study engineering, and I was looking for a great engineering school but within a liberal arts environment. So I searched in Barron’s book on colleges [Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges]. There was no internet, so that was our guide. It was a huge book. I went through it and I thought that Massachusetts would be a great place to study because of all the schools in the area. The best engineering school in a liberal arts environment was Tufts. I applied there early decision and I got in. My high school counselor told me, “Tufts is too tough for you,” but I got in, and it’s actually a funny story how I found out. I knew that the acceptance letter would arrive at my house right after New Year’s, and the mail would come to my house about noontime. So I would call my mom from school every day at quarter past noon to find out if they got a letter from Tufts. I called every day and it was January 7, I remember the day. I called my mom and my mom was crying and I thought, “Oh no, I didn’t get in, I got rejected.” I asked, “What’s happening, did I not get in?” and she says, “No, I didn’t say that.” I asked her what the problem was and she said, “I got the letter, but I can’t read it; it’s in English.” She was too nervous and I asked her to tell me if the envelope was thin or thick. She said it was thick so I knew I got in.

TD: Was there a large international student community when you were at Tufts?
IM: Yes, there was a large international community. My first time in the U.S., my first experience with Tufts, was the International Orientation, which was excellent. It was an excellent introduction. I bonded with the international community immediately. The next year, I became president of the International Club, and the year after, the manager of the International House. However, I made a point to hang out with my American friends — that was why I came to the U.S. I came to learn the American culture and be a part of it. My [first] year, I [lived] in Wren Hall in the “O-Zone,” the basement, and all my friends there, whom I’m still friends with, are American.

TD: How did you decide to study mechanical engineering?
IM: When I came to Tufts, I had no idea what kind of engineering I would do. The first day of regular orientation — with all the students, not just international — I met with my [orientation] group and I met with my undergraduate advisor, which was Professor Lloyd Trefethen. [He] was one of the best fluid mechanics engineers in the world. I had read all about him, and I was so excited to meet him. I sat next to him during the first dinner of orientation, and he invited me to go his laboratory the next morning [because] he was doing some cool experiments with droplets. I woke up early because I was jet lagged, and I took a walk around campus. It was actually the first time I’d seen a squirrel. I got to his office early, and he was holding a pipette and pulling water from a cup. I thought that was odd … He had a high-speed video camera, which is now common but back then it was very expensive. He started dropping water from the pipette and filming it and we played it back. I was fascinated because actually, they were perfect spheres. That immediately impressed me, so I decided to go into the mechanical engineering department. That was the moment I knew — the first day at Tufts.

TD: Did you study other fields at Tufts?
IM: It was mostly engineering. I started research immediately my [first] year. I did several projects, like one on solar energy and building solar houses. I also did a project on energy storage, which was my undergraduate thesis. And then I did a project in fluid mechanics. That was the highlight [of] my time there, these research projects and my social life.

TD: What non-academic activities did you participate in at Tufts?
IM: Like I said before, I was president of International Club, which back then, threw the best parties on campus. Eaton Hall, the computer lab, this used to be a party space. There was an island in the middle with a DJ and there was great dancing, like hundreds and hundreds of students. So we used to throw parties there and at the International House. I was also in the karate club, and I learned how to scuba dive. I took a lot of physical education courses, like learning how to fence or become a lifeguard. I was very well-organized, and I would do my schedule every Sunday morning. I would never study past 8:30 and tried to go out on the weekend.

TD: Did you have any particular study spot on campus?
IM: My desk. I never went to the library — not once. I went to get books but not to study.

TD: What were some memorable moments you experienced at Tufts?
IM: There were some academic moments. I represented Tufts at a New England competition for best engineering paper and I won. That was a fantastic moment. There were other memorable moments at parties, like winning the Halloween costume contest three years in a row.

TD: Who were some of the most influential professors or classes you had at Tufts?
IM: My advisor was by far the most influential. One of the courses I took [in my first] year was solar energy … and that was a fascinating course also.

TD: How did you become a triple Jumbo, and why did you decide to stay at Tufts?
IM: Senior year, I applied to both the school of architecture and the engineering school at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I remember that I asked Professor Trefethen to write the letter of recommendation … I asked two other professors, who signed it immediately, and Professor Trefethen, who took forever. So the day of the deadline, I went to his office and said that I needed the recommendation. He pulled it out of his desk. It was a blank form and he wrote a sentence. He closed the envelope and gave it to me. I was so devastated after all the good work I’d done with him in his research and his classes, and he wouldn’t take the time to write the recommendation. So I went to MIT and I left it there. The next day, I called the secretary to see if they had gotten my application and she said yes, you are accepted. The next day. I thought I had to wait until April. I ran to the ATM machine, got money and got roses for the secretary for the good news. I said, “How did I get accepted so quickly?” She said that Professor [Warren] Rohsenow, who was the head of admissions, read Professor Trefethen‘s letter. But I knew that he wrote one sentence. That sentence had said “Accept him.” So I got into both schools, but I focused on mechanical engineering. I did pretty well and the plan was for me to stay for my Ph.D. But what happened is Professor [Behrouz] Abedian, who was one of the advisors for my projects, got major funding from the National Science Foundation and invited me to go back to Tufts to do my Ph.D. there and offered me a great stipend to have master’s students working with me — lots of resources. And of course I love Tufts. When I was at MIT, I began to get interested in business because I took an entrepreneurship course, so when I went back to Tufts I wanted to continue studying business. Tufts does not have business, so I decided, along with me taking courses for my Ph.D. and doing research, to get a master’s in economics. That’s why I’m a triple Jumbo.