Alumni Q&A: Ioannis Miaoulis Part II

Ioannis Miaoulis poses for a picture. (Courtesy Ioannis Miaoulis)
Editor’s note: This is a continuation of a two-part Q&A. The first part was published in yesterday’s issue and can be accessed here

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What did you do after you completed your doctoral studies at Tufts?

Ioannis Miaoulis (IM): When I finished my Ph.D. I wanted to become a professor, so I applied to different schools. I was actually in active conversation with [the California Institute of Technology] and Columbia [University] and a university in Louisiana, but my dream was always to be a professor at Tufts. But there was no opening in my area of expertise. Unexpectedly, one of the faculty had to leave for family issues and a position opened up. So I applied. It was a very stressful situation because I was already a lecturer … and a Ph.D. student. But somehow I got the job. Years later, when I was dean, we were digging up some files on faculty searches. I found the faculty search from when I was applying. I found out that I was the fourth choice of the department.
TD: Why did you decide to go into teaching?
IM: I enjoy teaching a lot. I did a lot of teaching as a graduate student. I was a TA and a lecturer, and I love Tufts and research so this was the ideal job. I started as an assistant professor and did a lot of work and research.
TD: Beyond teaching, how else were you involved in the Tufts administration?
IM: I was an assistant professor, and I realized I was managing research, because I had a large research group, rather than doing it myself. So the year before I got tenure, I approached Dean Fred Nelson. I told him I was interested, after getting tenure, for him to consider me as department chair or associate dean so I could start going up the management ladder. Two months later, I got a call from him and the vice president and they asked me to meet with them. A month later, I was told I’d be the associate dean the coming year. I had not officially even gotten tenure yet. So I became the associate dean. [Later] the vice president decided to organize the school and I was made the dean of the school of engineering at 32. That started my career as dean at Tufts.
TD: You did a lot of work with engineering outreach, particularly within elementary, middle and high schools. How did this project start?
IM: What happened was, I was trying to figure out a better way to drive from home to Tufts. I took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end, which happened to be the neighborhood middle school. I was doing some work with some … superconductors with some fascinating materials … Here I was at this middle school parking lot. I thought it would be a good idea to show the middle schoolers the materials. So I got out of the car, met the principal of the school and said I was a professor at Tufts. I got to meet the eighth grade science teacher, who was an older gentleman. He was very excited and invited me to give a talk the following Friday to the kids. I was excited because I had never taught kids of that age. I spent a whole week with my undergraduate students preparing a show. Here I am giving the whole show and in front of me, there was a little girl with frizzy hair, taking notes of everything I had to say … At the end of the talk [she] said, “Dr. Miaoulis, I would like you to help with my science fair project.” Of course, I had not helped anyone with a science fair project, but what do you say when a kid is so excited? … That was the moment that changed my life. It [inspired me to] start the whole K-12 outreach program at Tufts. Right now, it’s one of the strongest engineering programs in the country.
TD: Can you speak about how you transitioned to the Museum of Science?
IM: Chris Rogers and I decided to introduce engineering along with science as a new discipline in schools starting with kindergarten. We helped begin the whole STEM initiative in 1995 and this whole engineering thing blossomed at Tufts but was very difficult to make national because my focus was on the Engineering School. That’s why I made the move to the Museum [of Science]. They wanted to introduce engineering at the Museum of Science as a discipline. I thought that was crazy, because I love Tufts and I’d just been promoted to associate provost, but I thought it would be a good platform to get my dream of introducing engineering to young children to become a reality. So to everybody’s shock, I left Tufts. Even my golden retrievers are named after Tufts buildings. My first one was Ballou, the second one Anderson and the one right now is called Fletcher.
TD: What did you do at the Museum of Science?
IM: I went to the Museum and started this whole expansion of engineering. The Museum trained about a quarter of a million teachers and … our efforts have reached about 20 million kids. The Museum has become the international leader in K-12 engineering education. The little girl that actually started that — she won the science fair that year. She graduated at [the] top of her class, went to Haverford College and studied biology and history. And then she went to Tanzania to start designing science laboratories for children … She was instrumental in introducing the E in STEM.
TD: You will become the next president at Roger Williams University in August 2019. How did you decide on taking that opportunity?
YM: I stayed at Tufts 16 years and I stayed at the museum 16 years. I had to make a decision whether to stay at the museum to see the completion of the Blue Wing and then retire, or to do something different. I decided it was time to do something different. My heart has always been in academia and I was planning on taking a break because I’d never had a sabbatical in my life. But the moment that it was announced that I was going to be leaving the museum, all the search firms started calling me and the first call I got was from the search firm finding the position for president of Roger Williams. In the beginning, I was interested. I used to fish in Narragansett Bay, so I’d seen the university many times from the water. When I looked closely at the university, I really saw potential for it to become the university the world needs now. It combines liberal arts with professional education, it focuses on an affordable education for students and it’s in an amazing location. So I decided to do it. They picked me and I picked them and I’m looking forward to the next journey.
TD: What is one piece of advice you would give to incoming first-years at Tufts?
IM: Schedule your academic and social life … That freed up a lot of my time to do a lot of fun things. Tufts has so much to offer both in academic life and social life. If you’re organized, you can enjoy it so much more than wasting your time.
TD: What is one piece of advice you would give to seniors at Tufts?
IM: Tufts has prepared me and I assume prepared you for a wonderful life, academically, civically and socially. You never know where you’re gonna be. Keep an open mind and always try to do the right thing. Think out of the box.

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