Carnegie Mellon University
August 03, 2021

VanBriesen Named Division Director of the National Science Foundation's CBET

By Ryan Scarpino

Shilpa Bakre
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Jeanne M. VanBriesen, who serves as the Duquesne Light Company Professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, has been appointed to lead the Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The opportunity will allow VanBriesen to build on her sustained record of leadership and leverage her experience bringing interdisciplinary methods to help solve elaborate problems.

"This role has a direct parallel to my work over the past decade leading faculty teams and collaborating to advance science and the mission of NSF," said VanBriesen. "When I approached CMU leadership about my considering this opportunity, they were very supportive — not surprising as CMU values faculty service to the research community."

VanBriesen joined Carnegie Mellon in 1999 as an assistant professor in CEE and was awarded the Duquesne Light Company chair in 2014. She recently served as CMU's vice provost for faculty (2019-21), and she previously served as chair of the Faculty Senate.

VanBriesen's research focuses on biodegradation and thermodynamics of microbial systems, and she has published more than 70 journal articles over the course of her career. Throughout her tenure, she's emphasized the importance of aligning this research with environmental concerns in the region, in particular, improving water systems. "When there's a new water problem in the region, I often say, 'That's interesting and complicated. I'm in,'" she said.

"Jeanne is not only a highly accomplished scholar, but a thoughtful leader and extraordinary collaborator." — Farnam Jahanian

"I am delighted that Jeanne VanBriesen will be bringing her remarkable experience and expertise to the National Science Foundation," said CMU President Farnam Jahanian, who previously led the NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate from 2011 to 2014. "Jeanne is not only a highly accomplished scholar, but a thoughtful leader and extraordinary collaborator who embodies all of the talents needed to thrive in this important leadership position. This appointment is another expression of the critical role our faculty play as thought leaders and her public service brings pride to our entire community."

The opportunity to not only lead CBET but collaborate across other divisions within the NSF aligns perfectly with her confidence that cross-disciplinary work creates more fertile research. The mission of the CBET Division is to support innovative research and education in the fields of chemical engineering, biotechnology, bioengineering and environmental engineering, and in areas that involve the transformation or transport of matter and energy by chemical, thermal or mechanical means.

"By focusing between two traditional areas, you're often solving a really important problem that hasn't gotten enough attention," VanBriesen said.

A native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, VanBriesen attended Northwestern University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in education. It was during her time teaching chemistry and physics at high schools in Chicago and upstate New York that she furthered her interest in environmental safety. She then returned to Northwestern where she earned her master's degree and Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Not long after, she made her way to Carnegie Mellon.

VanBriesen credits CMU for always allowing her to "color outside the lines" when it comes to research, exploring topics that didn't fall in strict disciplinary areas. She'll carry that approach with her as she begins her NSF term on Aug. 16.

"What excites me most about this opportunity is the alignment between what I want to do in my life, what CMU has enabled me to do for 20 years, and what the NSF will allow me to do in having a bigger impact in multiple engineering fields," said VanBriesen.

Thanks to the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA), which allows the temporary assignment of university faculty to agencies of the federal government, she'll fulfill her appointment at NSF while remaining part of CMU. This will enable VanBriesen to continue to mentor her four current CEE Ph.D. students. After all, working with the next generation of researchers is her favorite part of being at Carnegie Mellon.

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