Roger Bonnecaze took the helm as Interim Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering in July 2021 following Sharon L. Wood’s appointment to UT Austin’s Executive Vice President and Provost. (He was named the permanent Dean of the Cockrell School in summer 2022.) Born into a family of chemical engineers – his dad worked for ExxonMobil and his mother was the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from the University of Tehran in Iran – Bonnecaze’s passion for engineering was sparked at an early age after witnessing how fulfilled his parents were in their chemical engineering careers.

Bonnecaze received his B.S. from Cornell University and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology, all in chemical engineering, before becoming a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and the Institute of Theoretical Geophysics at the University of Cambridge. His time in England had a tremendous impact and spurred his pursuit of increased collaboration and idea-sharing in STEM fields.

Bonnecaze has been a faculty member at UT Austin since 1993. He served as chair of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering from 2005 to 2013. A world-renowned expert in rheology and nanomanufacturing modeling and simulation, Bonnecaze co-led the Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Energy Technologies (NASCENT) Center, the first National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center at UT, for six years before stepping down to start a company with one of his former Ph.D. students.

Interim Dean Bonnecaze with his former Ph.D. student Meghali Chopra. Bonnecaze and Chopra co-founded the startup SandBox Semiconductor, and Chopra serves as CEO.

After he had a few weeks to settle in to his new role as interim dean — and his new office on the 10th floor of Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall — we sat down with Bonnecaze to hear about his leadership style, entrepreneurial endeavors and aspirations for the future of Texas Engineering.

Can you give us a “behind the scenes” look at being the interim dean of one of the top engineering schools in the country?

Being a dean at any large program is an exciting, yet challenging position. There’s a lot of things going on, ranging from ensuring the students are getting the best education they can, to making sure the departments have the resources they need in order to be successful, to developing new programs and coordinating with other leadership across campus. And, of course, fundraising and engaging with donors and partners who help us manifest our vision.

With the rise in COVID numbers at the start of the semester, one of my immediate objectives was to manage the transition for classes in the fall semester. The primary goal was to do this in a safe and secure way, balancing the need for students and faculty to get back into the classroom with the fluctuating constraints of faculty who have health concerns or young children who can’t be vaccinated, or students who were concerned about the safety of their families.

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

If I were to sum up my leadership philosophy it would be, “None of us are as smart as all of us.” I find it incredibly valuable to consult people to gather a breadth of ideas and opinions. It’s important that everyone is heard. Of course, at the end of the day a leader’s responsibility is to synthesize these ideas, distill them down and then develop a plan that can be executed.

I was first exposed to this collaborative approach when I was a postdoc at the University of Cambridge. I was in a very large group doing theoretical geophysics, and our team had folks from all different disciplines. Since it was in England, there was always tea time at 4 PM, during which we’d sit down and talk. I found these informal meetings to be incredibly valuable for advancing my research, as I was able to incorporate different perspectives into my own, unique approach.

To recreate this collaborative atmosphere, we have built spaces for people to get together and have a coffee or soda (or an English tea, if you prefer) in the Gary L. Thomas Energy Engineering Building, and we are designing spaces like this into the new Engineering Discovery Building. These areas will encourage the exchange of ideas and, overall, make for a stronger Texas Engineering community.

How have you seen engineering education change over the years, and where do you see it going in the years to come?

I think one of the things that’s really benefitted engineering education over the last 25 years is the availability of multiple media to teach students. We’ve gone from lecturing on a chalkboard to lecturing on an iPad projected on a screen, which allows us to incorporate graphics, animations, movies and content from the web to engage students and help them learn.

We’ve also figured out how to be more effective in delivering this content electronically. When you were learning material 25 years ago, you’d have the professors’ notes, textbook and office hours, and perhaps reserved reading in the libraries. Now you have all of that, but you also have access to an enormous range of videos on YouTube, for example, to help learn. There’s really a remarkable amount of material available.

One of our takeaways from the COVID era is that there are places where online education can actually be quite efficient. The whole idea of breakout rooms is actually an efficient way to create a collaborative classroom setting. And, some material is more effectively delivered in an online method than in person. I think as we move forward we’re going to figure out how to balance the virtual world with the physical classroom to give an overall positive learning experience in every class and for every student.

Can you share a bit about your entrepreneurial endeavors? What advice do you have for faculty or students embarking on their own entrepreneurial ventures?

I’ve had two entrepreneurial endeavors. My first was as an assistant professor working with another colleague in the Cockrell School. Although the technology was first rate, that idea did not pan out. In debriefing the experience, we realized we hadn’t done something called “customer discovery.” A lot of times people have great technology, but to really make it into a successful business there has to be somebody willing to pay for it.

In my second endeavor — a spinout company called SandBox Semiconductor that I co-founded with one of my former graduate students, Meghali Chopra, who’s now the CEO of the company — we went through the NSF I-Corps program. It was one of the best professional development programs I’ve ever done. It’s a seven-week program, sort of like a mini bootcamp for startup companies. A core piece of the program is this idea of customer discovery: speaking to the people who you think you’re going to sell your product to, learning what their pain points are and then taking that information to adjust what your product might be. It’s invaluable.

Including the NSF I-Corps program, which is available at UT Austin, I would encourage anyone interested in entrepreneurship to take advantage of the resources on campus, particularly in the Cockrell School. The Texas Innovation Center is a fabulous resource. They have tons of programs to help educate faculty and students about what’s involved in building a startup.

Much like my entrepreneurial efforts, the first attempt at starting NASCENT was a failure, so that was a learning experience. So, when S.V. Sreenivasan and I officially launched the NASCENT Center, we already had one failure under our belts and had learned quite a bit. Again, listening is key to success. Listen not only to the faculty but also to industry collaborators. We had an initial meeting with companies we thought would be partners, presented the ideas of how the center would operate, and then we got feedback on our ideas. By incorporating their ideas, it made not only for a better proposal, but it also made them part of the process and invested in the success of the center. They wanted us to succeed, too.

You are an advocate for the importance of student scholarships. Why are you passionate about philanthropy?

My father’s parents immigrated from France to New York City in the ‘30s and made a living as craftspeople. My father was able to go to college because he went to The Cooper Union, which had fully paid scholarships for all students. My mom was the first woman to graduate from engineering at the University of Tehran in Iran and she met my dad when they were both graduate students at the University of Michigan. And she was able to go there because of a scholarship. It’s because of my parents that I’m a very strong believer in the power of scholarships to change people’s lives, enabling them to change not only the life they’re living but to ultimately change the lives of those around them. I’m here because of what my parents were able to achieve with the help they got, and I see the importance in creating those same opportunities for Cockrell School students.

Bonus: How do you spend your time when you aren’t wearing your “dean hat”?

Chemical engineering is all about transforming matter from one form to another, so I like cooking because it’s a similar process. I guess some would say I’m known for my apple and plum cakes and cookies. One of my guilty pleasures is watching “Top Chef.” When my son lived with us before he went to college, he and I would watch a new episode every Thursday night. Now that he’s at college, I record them on my DVR and when he comes home from break we binge watch “Top Chef” together.

by Maddie Schulte