Profile: McCormick dean encourages art in engineering school

Christina Salter

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Growing up in Argentina during the 1960s, Julio Ottino was fascinated by both his mother’s art supplies and his father’s microscopes.

Ottino would continue to pursue both passions throughout his life, leading up to his current position as dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Northwestern.

“Very early on I had this dual kind of exposure,” Ottino said. “It was a lucky accident in some sense.”

His paradoxical interests would also eventually shape his goal for McCormick students to apply creative and entrepreneurial skills to engineering through design. In Ottino’s words, NU engineers use “both parts of the brain.” His own office in the Technological Institute is decorated with his original artwork.

Since becoming dean about four years ago, Ottino has pushed for many new McCormick initiatives, including the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Segal Design Institute and the recently established concentration in architectural engineering.

None of these initiatives would exist today without Ottino’s support, said Michael Marasco, director of the Farley Center. Ottino had the center established and endowed by an alumnus in less than two years, Marasco said.

“The idea of design is not the design of this,” said Ottino, as he gestured to a clock on his desk. “It’s the thinking process that goes behind design.”

According to the dean, design skills are useful for solving the real problems behind perceived scientific programs. These skills are evident in almost all facets of a McCormick education, from students who created a new device that can diagnose AIDS patients to a professor who optimized interlibrary loans on the North Shore, he said.

It’s a trend that appears likely to continue. According to Marasco, Ottino is always open to ideas from students and faculty and often e-mails Marasco with ideas of his own.

“He’s a living example of the fact that diversity in your mindset is a good thing,” he said.

Although the push to bring more design-oriented curriculum to McCormick began more than 10 years ago, Ottino offered the support and found the resources to make the Segal Design Institute a reality, said Bruce Ankenman, Segal’s director of undergraduate programs.

Ankenman and other professors also mentioned Ottino’s push to create deeper connections between NU schools.

McCormick now has connections with “virtually every school in the university,” Ottino said, whether through academic programs or jointly appointed professors.

Ottino said the “perfect example” of these connections is the NUvention: Medical Innovation class, which enrolls 20 students each from McCormick, Kellogg School of Management,

Feinberg School of Medicine and the School of Law. The students must shadow surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to identify a shortcoming, then develop and prototype an improvement.

Students also seem to appreciate the chance to apply their engineering skills in new ways.

NU’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World received its initial funding because of Ottino’s support, said club co-president William Fan.

The organization is now running three international projects and two local projects, Fan said.

“As engineers we spend so much time studying,” he said. “This gives us a chance to explore our technical expertise and do something different than keeping our heads in the books.”

After becoming dean, Ottino said he was lucky to find the “perfect storm” of elements to create so many new initiatives related to both design and entrepreneurship, art and science.

“If you manage to somehow keep the sides together, I see that as a great advantage,” he said. “The kind of thoughts that you have will not be exactly similar to the kinds of thoughts people are having in your domain.”