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Delia Milliron has been a part of innovation from almost every angle. She has established herself as a leader in nanomaterials research, with an early-career resume that includes IBM and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Milliron, who joined The University of Texas at Austin in 2013, has co-founded two startups in her career with a common thread of nanomaterials and energy efficiency. She helped build a startup called Heliotrope Technologies around one of her most well-known projects: a novel energy-efficient “smart window” coating technology that allows people to selectively vary the heat transmitted through windows while also controlling glare and lighting. Milliron also recently co-founded Celadyne Technologies to create materials that could improve hydrogen fuel cells as alternatives to conventional batteries.

Milliron has authored or co-authored more than 145 journal articles, holds 19 patents and is the recipient of many awards, including the American Chemical Society’s Inorganic Nanoscience Award (2019), the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Engineering (2018), the Norman Hackerman Award (2017) and the Sloan Research Fellowship (2016).

But starting this week, Milliron embarks on a new challenge. She is the incoming chair of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, an interdisciplinary department that boasts undergraduate and graduate programs ranked in the top five in the U.S. She succeeds outgoing chair Thomas Truskett, who served in the role for eight years and brought outstanding vision and stability during his tenure. Truskett will return to teaching and research in the department.

We sat down with Milliron to chat about her initial priorities as chair, how her entrepreneurial background will shape her leadership style and how she is navigating the challenges of COVID-19.

First of all, how are you holding up? 2020 was incredibly challenging year.

I’m doing well, actually. I really appreciate the energy and resilience that the students and postdocs in my research group, and the students in my classes, brought to the table this year. Their willingness to adapt and adapt again has made all the difference. They've also been open with me and each other about the emotional impact of this year's events and have helped us focus on positive actions we can take to improve our community and support each other.

As you begin your term as department chair, what are your top priorities for 2021?

In thinking about strategic priorities, I am focused on things that I can influence as chair and that impact both the teaching and research missions of the department. Three priority areas are faculty recruitment and development, corporate and alumni relations, and facilities for teaching and research.

We're searching for a new assistant professor right now, but we also need to develop practices that deliberately cultivate relationships with a diverse pool of upcoming candidates who we might recruit or network with in future years. For current faculty, I'm thinking about how to update and keep improving our teaching and to provide useful mentorship. We have a huge alumni base, most working in companies where they can help connect us with resources to strengthen our program. So many of our alumni are looking for ways to give back and stay connected, and we can use their help in recruiting and mentoring students who come from diverse backgrounds, facilitating renewal of our curriculum, connecting our students with career opportunities and so much more. I'm going to focus on strengthening our alumni network and being strategic about these engagements.

Finally, our physical space is where it all happens – well, not as much this year! Our faculty research groups have expanded their footprints on campus, and our home base, the CPE building, is undergoing some improvements. We need to be strategic about developing spaces that facilitate and stimulate innovations in teaching, like the ongoing revamping of our undergraduate lab courses, and in research, like shared lab facilities for faculty with common equipment needs.

Cutting across all of these areas is the pressing need to make progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We've initiated a top-to-bottom assessment of how we're doing on DEI, leading us to develop and implement actions for improvement across all aspects of the chemical engineering program. This priority influences our planning in all the areas I mentioned.

You’ve founded two startups now. What lessons have you learned wearing the hat of academic and entrepreneur, and how will you apply them in leading the department?

I started my career in industry, and that experience, together with my entrepreneurship, has raised my awareness of how many opportunities there are to make connections between cutting-edge fundamental science and commercializable technologies. Participating in company-building has also amplified my appreciation for how important diverse people and different types of aptitudes are to the success of a team and to the strength and overall well-being of an institution or organization.

One thing I love about our department is the mutual appreciation among the faculty for their respective contributions across a wide variety of disciplinary pursuits within chemical engineering. I hope to see our faculty, staff, students and alumni develop even stronger ties as a community that actively supports each other’s success and seeks to expand our horizons in terms of who we invite and incorporate within our community.

COVID has certainly upended how we work and learn. What, if any, new habits could stick around once we return to something closer to normal life?

I have really appreciated how holding classes and seminars online has opened up opportunities to invite guests from across Texas, the U.S. and around the world. It has allowed us to bring in a wide range of speakers to expose our students to a greater diversity of ideas and people and different pursuits related to chemical engineering. Virtual visits present a more accessible option for many people, whether they are busy with kids at home or just don't have time for a three-day trip. I expect we'll see a mix of in-person and virtual guest lectures going forward, which offers a broader range of opportunities for the department to network with alumni and for students to develop their professional networks. 

If you had one piece of advice to anyone interested in becoming an engineer, what would it be?

Follow your passion. Engineering can help you develop skills that you need to solve problems and create things that enable real progress in society. If you focus your time and attention on the issues that motivate you, where you see the urgent need to make things better, you can make a tangible positive impact as an engineer. Don't be afraid to get into new areas over time, as you experience and learn more about needs all across society.