Engineer, Educator and Administrator: Ronald W. Rousseau

Textbooks play an indispensable role in a student’s life. When freshmen start university, it is quite stereotypical to find them having a sketchy idea about the discipline they will be in for the next few years, especially one like chemical engineering, which has a wide range of applications, from material balance to medicine, from petrochemical to process control. Undoubtedly, every book included in the curriculum is vital to learning, but there are some books that bear hallmarks of the ability to build the very foundation of the discipline itself. One such book, amongst the many others, that is used internationally and by more than 80% of the chemical engineering programs in the United States is, Elementary Principles of Chemical Processes , the co-author of which is none other than Ronald W. Rousseau.

Ronald W. Rousseau

Dr. Ronald W. Rousseau holds the Cecil J. “Pete” Silas Endowed Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is chair of the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. He also has served two terms as interim director of the Institute of Paper Science & Technology at Georgia Tech. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from Louisiana State University and was elected to the LSU Engineering Hall of Distinction. He also served as a faculty member at North Carolina State University, and was a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Dr. Rousseau’s leadership of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech has guided it into new domains such as microelectronics, biomolecular engineering, and nanotechnology. Much of his recent effort focuses on challenges associated with growing global energy demands and the associated impact on the environment and natural resources. He considers it a challenge for the people in today’s society to meet the energy demands without causing environmental damage.

Dr. Rousseau’s research has explored numerous areas. His diverse research works resulted in more than 190 journal articles, book chapters, and monographs and more than 250 presentations at technical meetings and seminars for industry and universities.
For his contributions to chemical engineering education, Dr. Rousseau received the Warren K. Lewis Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). He also received the Clarence G. Gerhold Award from the Separations Division of the AIChE and the Forest Products Award given by the Forest Products Division of AIChE. He is a fellow of both AIChE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was selected for the LSU Engineering Hall of Distinction. On the occasion of the AIChE Centennial, he was cited by AIChE as one of 30 authors of groundbreaking chemical engineering books. In January 2010, he was awarded a Docteur Honoris Causa by L’Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse.

Not only is he an academic and researcher, but Dr. Rousseau plays editorial roles too. He is editor of the Handbook of Separation Process Technology , an executive editor of Chemical Engineering Science and topic editor for Crystal Growth and Design . He has been a member of the advisory board of the Wiley Series in Chemical Engineering and of Separations Technology , a consulting editor for the AIChE Journal , an associate editor of the Journal of Crystal Growth , and a member of the publications board of Chemical Engineering Education .

Through several leadership positions, Dr. Rousseau has made important contributions to AIChE, most notably as a member of the board of directors; as chair of the publications committee; as chair of a local section and of the Forest Products Division; as a founding member and director of the Separations Division Dr. Rousseau has also served as chair of the Council for Chemical Research, an organization that at the time of his leadership consisted of top research officers of more than 35 major chemical companies and 8 federal laboratories and the heads of nearly all PhD-granting chemical engineering and chemistry departments in the US.

The achievements, publications and research works of Ronald W. Rousseau are sheer reflections of the academic, researcher and leader that he is. ChE Thoughts gets an upfront interview of Dr. Rousseau, conducted by Mohammad Zahid Hossain and composed by Fauzia Sultana.

Thank you for giving us time from your busy schedule. You are a world leader in chemical engineering and education. What influenced you to be a Chemical Engineer?

There are so many facts that influenced my decision and it is very difficult to pinpoint one. The reasonable answer is that, my father worked for a chemical company. I was eager to know what is going on in that company and some of the challenges and what could be done using chemistry to create exciting new products. Since I grew up in a place where the chemical companies were all refineries, chemical engineering was the natural choice for me.

What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met with in engineering and science in the coming years?

The biggest challenges facing society from the technical point of view is meeting global energy needs while being cognisant of environmental and other constraints that exist. It will also be challenging to figure out, how to meet the global energy needs without doing undue damage to the environment and utilizing the resources that are associated with energy.

What significant changes have you seen in your field during your career?

In the field itself, probably the emergence of biology as enabling science in engineering in general and for chemical engineering specifically.

How important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in your field (or science)?

When you discuss something about ‘interdisciplinary’, by definition you are talking about two or more disciplines coming together to address a specific problem. Often people forget that ‘interdisciplinary’ means exactly that and you have strong disciplines. It is not a matter whether I come from the chemical, mechanical or electrical engineering discipline. What matters is that, I have skill sets that I bring to a particular problem and people from other disciplines bring different skill sets to that same problem with the goal to solve the problem. So, I am keenly supportive of interdisciplinary approaches in our problem solving; but that doesn’t mean that I am any less supportive of having a strong discipline from which people should work.

What is your opinion about ethics and the changes in ethical conduct within your field?

I think it is hard to say if I have encountered any changes in ethics within the field, but I have seen a change in perspective regarding ethics. On the one hand, to some simply ignoring the copyright, whether on music, books, or other copyrighted items may be considered ethically standard, although to me it is illegal and unethical. I was disappointed with some students and they just don’t seem to understand. On the other hand, we are paying more attention to the subject matter of ethics than was paid a number of years ago, for instance, our own symposium in ethics and leaderships and the inclusion of ethics in our safety courses.

Would you like to share any memorable experience from your academic career and professional life?

In my academic career, I was really impressed by a number of professors that I have had, who gave me a broad perspective about the possibility of chemical engineering as a profession.

There are a lot of memorable experiences in my professional life though. Among them, the publication of my first text book was the most memorable event and then beginning to see it being widely adopted.

What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment in your colorful career and why?

It is difficult to describe an accomplishment as an engineer, since the most significant part of my career has been spent both as educator and administrator. So, as an educator probably the memorable experiences are all the students that I have interacted with and the successes they have had. As an administrator, the memorable thing is seeing that our chemical engineering program elevated itself to being among what I think is the best in the world.

How do you see the ‘Past’, ‘Present’ and ‘Future’ of Chemical Engineering Education?

Past: I come from the generation that was educated in chemical engineering in the sixties and I think during that time there was a transition going on between macroscopic to microscopic view. That is classically represented by unit operation to transport phenomena.

Present: At present what we are seeing is a transition from microscopic to the molecular level and this means that we are looking more at molecular characteristics and trying to predict what is going to be happening at multiple scales.

Future: In the future we are probably going to recognize that all of these are equally important.

And on that note the interview ends. It is a wonderful experience talking to Dr. Rousseau. We hope his immense experience, world class expertise and highly successful multi faceted career will inspire the new generation of chemical engineers and scientists. We thank Dr. Rousseau for his time and wish him all the best.

Dr. Rousseau with Mohammad Zahid Hossain



To cite this article, please use following information:

(use the given format or any standard citation format)

Hossain, M.F., Engineer, Educator and Administrator: Ronald W. Rousseau, ChE Thoughts 2 (2), 39-42, 2011.


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