From metallics to minds

From metallics to minds

A profile of Yeshiva College Dean David Srolovitz

From Yeshiva College in New York to Princeton, N.J., to Israel and as far away as Singapore, Dr. David Srolovitz combines hard science, academic administration, and education with his modern Orthodox lifestyle. Srolovitz does not fit the stereotype of a typical engineer. Although he has a doctorate in materials science and engineering and chaired Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, last year he undertook a new challenge, as dean of Yeshiva College — a job that requires him to consider all the liberal arts subjects in the undergraduate curriculum. For an engineer, he is surprisingly easy to understand; he has a lot to say about his research, how to educate undergraduate students, and the Jewish community.

Yeshiva College Dean David Srolovitz, right, talks with students Zev Koller, left, and Daniel Lipschitz.

Srolovitz is a strong supporter of the Torah U’Madda philosophy of Yeshiva University, which involves the synthesis of Torah and secular studies. A little over a year ago he was lured away from his engineering work at Princeton to become Yeshiva College’s dean. Since his three children had all attended YU, he was very familiar with the institution (his youngest is entering his junior year at YC.) He realized he was being given an opportunity to "build something that matters for the Jewish community." He would be able to oversee a significant expansion of the faculty, guide the planning and building of new facilities, and help to develop new programs. "We are redoing our entire curriculum from top to bottom," he reported.

Srolovitz’s work as a scientist and now as an administrator/educator spans the globe. A Highland Park resident, most work days he can be found at YU’s Washington Heights campus — along with many students from our area. But every Friday is reserved for his research at Prince-
ton. And several times a year he travels to Israel to visit YU students there and to Singapore.

Srolovitz leads a research program funded by the Singapore government. The group he heads, five full-time scientists, meets with him three to four times a year when he takes the 19-hour nonstop flight to Singapore. He also communicates with those colleagues on a regular basis through email and conference calls.

"[In Singapore] my work has been focused on computer modeling of the growth of microelectronic materials like gallium nitride," said Srolovitz. That material, used in green laser pointers, is important in the field of optoelectronics, which employs light, instead of electrons, for communication. The goal of that research is to develop new approaches in the field of telecommunication.

Srolovitz described the tight-knit Jewish community in Singapore, which he visits several times a year. "For Friday night dinners visitors can eat at the shul. The whole community eats Shabbos lunch together. I feel like a local; I have so many friends there." He explained that there are many Israelis living in Singapore, because when the country gained its independence the new government needed to build up its military capabilities quickly. The Israeli government stepped forward to offer help. However, Singapore, which is mostly ethnically Chinese, is surrounded by Muslim nations. "The Singaporeans didn’t want it known that there were so many Israelis there," said Srolovitz. "So they told everyone that [the Israelis] were Mexicans." Srolovitz said that Singapore is a fairly wealthy country and recommended it as "probably the easiest place to visit in all of Southeast Asia."

Srolovitz’s scientific career has taken him and his family from Los Alamos, N.M., to the University of Michigan, to Princeton, and now to his current position at Yeshiva. "I’m trying to keep my research alive. It’s more of a challenge with my new, larger administrative role," said Srolovitz.

His work at Princeton involves the study of various materials, such as microfilms. That research, on materials as diverse as foam bubbles and hard metals, has focused on microstructure and the arrangement of defects in those substances. "A typical piece of metal is made up of lots of crystals all stuck together," explained Srolovitz. "Those grains are randomly put together to make a solid body. The grains are separated by a grain boundary." When you heat the metal, the grain boundaries start to move, and change the nature of the material.

Srolovitz explained that the grains in metal interact in a way that is similar to the movement of bubbles in the head of a beer. Srolovitz, working together with Robert MacPherson, a mathematician in Princeton, recently applied this understanding of materials science to solve a mathematical problem that eluded scientists for more than 50 years, that is, how to determine the rate the volume of a bubble will change. In the 1950s the most famous mathematician of the ‘0th century, John von Neumann solved that question for two dimensions, or a flat surface. "But the real world is 3-D," said Srolovitz. "We found the exact solution to the problem in three dimensions." Their solution works for bubbles in foam, or for grains in a metal. The applications are far broader and more significant than how long the head of a beer, or a bubble-bath, will stay foamy. "In metals processing you must carefully control grain size. Knowing how this works is important in designing materials," said Srolovitz. That knowledge could be applied to materials used in aeronautics, computer chips, and nuclear reactors.

Srolovitz hopes to make a major impact on undergraduate education. "Part of the reason I came to YU was it was an opportunity to do some building. Over a period of five to seven years we plan to increase the size of the faculty about 50 percent," Srolovitz reported. "When you hire faculty it’s like the Supreme Court — once they get tenure they’re there for life. It’s the opportunity to influence generations of students." The faculty he is seeking include teachers who are strong scholars and have active research programs. "In the past the teaching load was quite high with very little time to focus on research. We’re working to reduce the teaching load, to make sure that the people we hire can do research."

Srolovitz relates strongly to the teacher-as-scholar model, since it well describes his own professional life. "The best way for students to understand a subject is to be involved in the subject, not just sitting in class." He wants students to have hands-on experiences in their chosen disciplines. For instance, Srolovitz plans to develop and expand programs for summer research opportunities for students. There are also plans to shift emphasis in the senior year to a senior research project, or thesis. "All of this requires the right kind of faculty," he said.

Srolovitz noted that many YU students choose medicine, law, and business over professions in the liberal arts. He pointed out that the cost of living in modern observant Jewish communities drives the career choices of students. "It’s largely an economic decision. But I think we’re starting to see more and more students also concerned with quality-of-life issues. More and more don’t want to work 90 hours per week," Srolovitz said.

Since he himself made other choices, he is interested in diversifying the paths students choose. "I’m trying to encourage students to look into nontraditional areas," he said. "We encourage students to think about classics, liberal arts, science…."

In addition to expanding its faculty, Srolovitz also reported that YC is revising its honors program, which provides full academic scholarships for many of its students. "We are trying to build a curriculum for them, where we get them to think about society: the historical, political, and economic aspects of the society, for example. We’re trying to add something different," he said. "We want them to be the kind of people who … have goals, besides financial goals, to satisfy."

Among the courses being developed is a freshman seminar, which combines the traditional English composition course with another discipline, such as music or science. The combination course, worth six credits, allows students to learn how to write in the context of a discipline. Srolovitz sees this as an important emphasis for students who have just spent one or more years in Israel, learning at a yeshiva. "The first year is very formative year on campus. After one or two years in Israel they have to get used to academics, including writing in English, again," he said. Srolovitz himself teaches a section of that seminar. His course, called "Understanding Technology," is for non-science majors.

In addition to teaching freshmen, Srolovitz taught solid state physics to upper-class physics majors this past spring. He observed the unique learning style of YC students — they do not hesitate to participate in class. In a classroom with 10 students, he noted, "I could lecture for, at most, three minutes without being interrupted [by questions]. For a typical lecture kind of subject, it’s very interactive and it’s a wonderful way to teach."

Although he is now wearing many hats and juggling myriad professional activities, Srolovitz’s research remains cutting edge. His landmark work on the nature of bubbles and metals was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature, and has attracted great interest from the scientific community as well as the popular media.

Not surprisingly, one of the major projects being championed by Srolovitz involves building new laboratories and renovating old ones, as some of the teaching labs were built more than 50 years ago. "We’re spending a lot of money building labs for faculty research as well as teaching labs," he said.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is professor of biology and director of general education at William Paterson University of New Jersey in Wayne, where she also directs the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She lives in Teaneck.

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