Four months into the job, Mark Hoffman – the new Dean of Engineering at UNSW – is energised. He’s just returned from the Asian Engineering Deans Summit in Singapore where he was talking up his goal of making UNSW one of the region’s pre-eminent engineering centres.
“It was quite remarkable just how well UNSW Engineering was known and respected,” Professor Hoffman says. He was enthusiastically buttonholed by peers, keen to explore new opportunities. “There’s a tendency [in the region] to defer to US institutions, but the way they approached and engaged, gave me the distinct impression that UNSW is seen as a leading engineering faculty in Asia.”
Hoffman plans to build on these strengths: both as an academic institution and as a collaborator with industry. “I want to make the faculty the go-to place within the region for solving industrial and community technical problems. We’ve got the expertise, and Asia has a fast-rising trajectory of industrial development.”
Asia faces acute challenges in energy, water, infrastructure and transport – all areas where UNSW has strong applied research expertise. “Our leading fundamental research will be better if we’re working with applied problems. You really need to design solutions against reality, and we have that ability.”
Hoffman came to the role after two years as Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), almost four years as Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty
of Science, and six years as Head of the School for Materials Science and Engineering. He’s held research positions in the USA, Japan, India and Germany, the latter as a Humboldt Fellow. Considered a leader in structural integrity of materials, more recently his work has centred on piezoelectric ceramics.
As Dean, he leads the largest engineering faculty in Australia, with more than 10,700 students and the widest range of programs. Notable graduates include Chris Roberts, CEO of global bionic ear giant Cochlear and Zhengrong Shi, billionaire founder of China’s Wuxi Suntech.
Hoffman is aiming high: while UNSW Engineering rates in the world’s top 50, he wants it to be in the top 30 – and maybe the top 25. “It’s an ambitious goal. But we’re on a stronger financial base, compared with US and European institutions, and on a stronger expertise base compared to the rising institutions of Asia.”
The rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) is also presenting UNSW with opportunities. New, more student-focused ways of learning all play to the faculty’s strengths, Hoffman says.
A core challenge he has set himself as Dean is to “get our fraction of female staff and students to 30%”, from around 21% (students) and 18% (teaching staff) – numbers that haven’t changed much for a decade. “We can get to 30% if we make a significant investment,” Hoffman says. “Just about every other profession has addressed this – engineering needs to crack it too.
Safe water for everyone
A new water research initiative is to be established at UNSW thanks to funding from the Tata Trust of India. In partnership with the trust and their teams, the program aims to provide clean drinking water to regional India through low-cost water purification solutions.
One project will develop a low-energy filter to remove salt, fluoride, arsenic and nitrates from water sources, and which is simple and robust enough to be used at the village level; the second is a larger reverse osmosis water filtration plant that can be mounted on small utility vehicles. The initiatives will be jointly run by the faculties of Engineering, Science, and Arts & Social Sciences, with the latter focused on helping engender social acceptance of the technologies.
The impact of the Tata–UNSW Water Initiative is likely to be profound, says Engineering Dean Mark Hoffman. Villages in India where the water quality is poor will be targeted first, before the intervention is scaled up across various states.