Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., officially became the School of Engineering's seventh dean on July 1. Since it could be a while before everyone has a chance to get to know him in person, we sent a few questions his way to get an idea of the person beyond the professional resume.

What excites you most about living in Birmingham?

This may have to wait a while, but I’ve heard a lot about the music scene and am looking forward to hearing some great live blues and jazz post-COVID.

You are on the record saying that you would encourage humanities students to consider taking engineering courses as electives. What would a political science major (to pick one example) gain from taking an engineering course?

Technology is so integrated into the fabric of our society that I can’t imagine anyone launching a career in government, politics, or law today without a solid understanding of how some of those technologies work. As just one example, our Constitution enshrines protections for free speech, and for most of our history questions over what constitutes protected free speech have been decided by courts. Yet today most of the decisions that impact free speech not only in the U.S. but around the world are being made by social media companies, often using algorithms most of us know little about. Understanding how search, filtering, and content evaluation tools work could be an important advantage for students contemplating a wide range of careers in everything from government to law to business to music.

And it’s not just that I hope to see humanities students taking engineering courses. I want engineers to take humanities courses to understand the societal and ethical dimensions of the technologies they are developing as well. I love that UAB has a World History and Technology course sequence where students and faculty from Arts and Sciences and Engineering come together to discuss technology and its impact from multiple viewpoints. I think we need more courses like that.

Tell me something about yourself that most of your colleagues don’t know.

I’m a juggler. In college I rented a place with a couple of other students who juggled and we would occasionally perform at fairs or on the street. It’s not one of those things that comes up in conversation, so I don’t think many of my colleagues even know about it. And these days I admit I am a little rusty. But it’s a fun distraction, and anybody can learn, so here’s an open invitation to all UAB Engineers – if you would like to learn how to juggle, I will teach you.

Engineering at UAB covers a wide range of disciplines and attracts an increasingly diverse pool of students. In your experience, what is the one defining trait that is common to all future engineers?

Problem-solving. Engineers like puzzles, taking things apart and putting them back together. When I Interviewed at UAB I asked a room full of faculty how many of them had played with Legos as a kid, and something like 90% of them raised their hands.

Engineers work on problems where you usually don’t know where you will end up when you start. It’s a process, and it takes creativity, persistence, trial and error, and teamwork. I find that many non-engineers underestimate the importance of both creativity and teamwork in engineering. Have you seen the movie The Martian, where Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars? The whole movie is about lots of people coming up with little inventions and improvements to keep him alive a few days longer, get a rescue ship back to Mars a few days sooner, and do all kinds of other things that together add up to a solution to what seemed like an intractable problem. At the very end of the movie he is talking to a group of trainees about how you never give up, you just keep chipping away, “working the problem,” and I think that’s a pretty good description of engineering.

When you take a break from being Dean of Engineering, where are you most likely to be found?

  1. Watching basketball at Bartow Arena
  2. Enjoying a symphony at the Alys Stephens Center
  3. Hiking a remote trail at Red Mountain Park

Definitely C. My wife and I love to hike and trail run. Our idea of a vacation is hiking up and down big mountains somewhere until we’re completely exhausted but mentally refreshed. Although sometimes I do feel like we need a vacation from our vacations!

jhw mask 2020Dean Jeff Holmes: Masked up and ready to work