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New NAME chair aims to spark growth, convey the breadth of the discipline to new students

“NAME grads are responsible for building offshore structures, doing undersea pipelines, cabling, harbors. There’s just a huge breadth of influence.”

On July 1, David Dowling took up the post of interim chair of the U-M Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, taking over the role of outgoing chair Jing Sun.

David Dowling
David Dowling

Dowling will helm the College’s smallest, but perhaps most unique department—one of only two programs of its kind in the United States. In addition to designing ships, NAME faculty and alumni help safeguard the natural marine world and shape the future of a broad range of applications, including offshore structures, wind energy, autonomous vehicles, naval security and many other areas.

We sat down recently to talk with Dowling about his plans for the department’s future. He is a professor in the departments of mechanical engineering and naval architecture and marine engineering.

Tell me about your path from ME to NAME.

I’ve been doing research for the Navy for more than 30 years. My PhD is in fluid mechanics and I’m currently conducting Navy-funded research in hydrodynamics, acoustics and hydro-acoustics. So, while I’m not a naval architect in the strict sense, I do know about the things they worry about and think about every day.

At the engineering-science topic level, moving from mechanical engineering to naval architecture and marine engineering shouldn’t be difficult. But moving from faculty member to department chair will certainly be new, interesting and challenging.

What drew you to the idea of taking on the role of department chair?

I think every faculty member, to a certain extent, has an interest or need to do something new, a certain level of ambition, a willingness to accept risks to achieve or sustain success. But in addition, I’m intrigued by working in a department where everybody knows everybody.

I’ve taught mechanical engineering classes that were larger than the entire NAME student body, so there’s a big contrast in size. However, from what I gather so far, there’s a real feeling of camaraderie and family, and I’m looking forward to that.

What are some of the challenges you’re looking forward to addressing?

Maybe it’s ironic that the small size I’m looking forward to is also a challenge we need to address. I know that both Dean Gallimore and the department itself would like to see more undergraduates in NAME and more connection to the rest of the College. I think the department has considerable room to grow without losing the close-knit culture that everyone enjoys.

More students could also enable us to add some faculty, and I think that would result in a better experience for students.

How do you plan to go about attracting more undergraduates to NAME?

I think that naval and marine engineering is actually a much broader discipline than many students realize. Ship design is a big part of it obviously, essentially planning floating warehouses, factories, cities and so much more. But in addition, naval engineers are really the architects for the two-thirds of the planet that’s covered with water. NAME grads are responsible for building offshore structures, doing undersea pipelines, cabling, harbors. There’s just a huge breadth of influence.

I think that’s part of what the department could emphasize to incoming first-year students who haven’t chosen a major.

And of course, NAME’s role extends beyond human-made structures. Engineers also have an important role to play in the natural world. An oceanographer, for example, can tell you there’s too much plastic in the ocean, it harms sea life and we need to clean it up. But how do you do that? In NAME, there are people who are already ideally placed to solve those kinds of problems.

A colleague at Penn State once said: “Engineering is the application of physical laws to the betterment of the human condition,” and I really like that statement. Thus, it’s important to make it clear to students that NAME is a great place to put that into practice.

What about the other side of the equation? How do you plan to steer the department’s interaction with the College and the University?

I see my role as being the person who can provide that interaction, which is going to help the department to thrive under the current College leadership. Dean Gallimore and I were hired the same year. We’ve known each other for almost 30 years.

He has expectations for NAME, like attracting more undergrads and playing a larger and more interconnected role in the College. Thus, I’m going to do my best to make sure that the department knows about those expectations and meets them to the extent we can.

It sounds like you’ll have your hands full. Where will you start?

I want to start with the simple stuff, like meeting with every faculty member and getting a sense of the department’s yearly rhythm. The last thing I want to do is to show up and knock out all the legs from underneath the tables and cause a complete catastrophe by insisting on having things my way on the first day. No.

I want to learn what’s here and what’s working well first before making any adjustments.