“Mayor” of a Rising Community of Engineers

When a visitor arrives at Dr. Michele Marcolongo’s office for a conversation, she comes around the desk to sit down in the chair opposite her guest. It’s a small gesture, but a telling one. Marcolongo defines her leadership style as “service leadership”—leadership as symbiosis, as collaboration—and it shows. This is but one example.

The approach will come in handy as Marcolongo embarks on her second term as department head for Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), a role that can require a level of détente more often associated with geopolitics than the running of a small university department. As in any community, competing interests align and collide, and the playing field on which they do so is considerable. Marcolongo focuses department goals on mentoring students, growing the research endeavor, recruiting faculty, drawing alumni in, pursuing the dream of an MSE-based research center, stoking collaborations, managing her own array of startups and, not incidentally, stewarding MSE’s rise to 30th in national rankings, the highest-rated department in the College of Engineering.

Asked how she does all of this, Marcolongo answers without pause. She leads with three core principles articulated as smoothly as if she’d been asked what time it is: the students are foremost and deserve the best education she can oversee; faculty members receive every resource within her power to pursue their best scholarship; and respect pervades every aspect of the department, from helping an undergraduate make course selections to strengthening relationships with MSE alums.

In short, Marcolongo thinks of herself as the “mayor of a small town.” That small town is called materials science, and there isn’t much within its borders that escapes her notice.

“Nationally, it’s an interesting time for materials,” says Marcolongo, first appointed department head in 2014 following Dr. Antonios Zavaliangos’ tenure. “It’s the information age, and information requires a lot of data processing, and data processing occurs in the material system. So the way we store and retrieve data, the way we power devices—it all goes back to materials and how we engineer them. For example, it’s a very important time for batteries and power storage, and we have a huge program here. So we’re working on that.

“At the same time, there are so many healthcare challenges in the country—the use of materials in developing treatments for everything from cancer to orthopedic injuries and disabilities to kidneys … every aspect can be drawn back to materials interactions and device development. And finally, the other big area is sustainability: how we can make materials that leave a small footprint but still perform a big function.”

A Couple of Goals

For several years now, Materials Science and Engineering has been pursuing federal funding for a $15M center supporting research on energy materials and biomimetic materials. Building towards the funding for such a center will “take some time,” so this is goal is on the horizon. There are others to fill up the space between.

A DARE initiative won by the department in 2016 to develop energy and bio-inspired materials was one of just six out of 41 proposals funded by Drexel during the program’s inaugural year. The momentum from that grant was used to jumpstart the long drive towards the MSE Center.

It was Marcolongo who spearheaded the 2019 partnership between CoE and the Kern Family Foundation’s prestigious KEEN program—Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network—to infuse CoE’s engineering curriculum with an entrepreneurial approach. She came across the network while researching her 2018 book on taking lab-based research into the commercial realm. In fact, representatives from KEEN recently visited CoE as part of the organization’s onboarding process. KEEN is particularly interested in Drexel’s co-op program and how its long success—co-op is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year—might be used as a testbed for integrating cooperative education with the entrepreneurial mission.

Marcolongo, herself a Drexel CoE alumna—she earned an MS in Mechanical Engineering in ’89 along with two degrees in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an undergrad degree from the University of Delaware—will continue to prioritize the peer mentoring program she started five years ago, in which freshmen are mentored by juniors to introduce them to the materials landscape. The program has been a runaway success in fostering esprit de corps among MSE students. The program also goes over well with prospective students and their parents.

“They like the fact that their sons and daughters are going to be coming in to this community where they’ll be cared for. It’s just another touchpoint they have,” said Marcologo, herself the mother of two college-age sons.

Although the department is not driven by rankings, it has conscientiously amplified the metrics that improve visibility: MSE has one of the highest citation indices in the entire country; four startups are moving forward today under the leadership of MSE faculty members; and its students are the proud recipients of 30 national scholarships and fellowships since 2013.

“We really look at our students and approach them with these opportunities, and then mentor them through the fellowship process,” said Marcolongo. “We write them letters and review their applications. We try to get them on publications. We send them to conferences. And about half of our undergraduates do research in our labs. All of these resources have really helped our students be very competitive, along with their own natural abilities. This is a real priority for us.”

“There’s been very little engineering application toward women’s health, so it’s a whole new opportunity. Maybe this is a new movement?” 
Dr. Michele Marcolongo

Mark Petrovic, a BS/MS student in MSE, underscores her point. Petrovic was first drawn to the Marcolongo lab as a freshman because of her track record as a strong collaborator with experts in clinical orthopedics, matrix biology, and other fields. Now writing his thesis on bioprosthetic, a type of heart valve replacement derived from animal tissue, he describes her leadership style as agile enough to respond to the needs of individual students.

“This stands in contrast to other professionals I have worked with who have a certain leadership style that remains relatively static,” says Petrovic. “The liberty she has given me to develop my master’s thesis on a disease process outside the lab’s area of expertise has enabled me to approach a topic of personal interest, and to design experiments that I think will best answer the questions we are asking.

“I feel privileged to have the opportunity to develop my project from the ground up and to have the support of my PI in leading the lab’s exploration into new research areas.”

Engineering for Women’s Health

Marcolongo is no stranger to new research areas. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineers two years ago partly on the strength of three startup companies she led and partly on research that has driven engineering in an unconventional direction—developing surgical models that support training in women’s health. Among them: a model for a procedure that’s used after a miscarriage; a model for a C-Section, five of which were produced this summer and dispatched to Uganda in October for use in training physicians there; and, coming up next, a training model for the repair of genital mutilation.

“There’s been very little engineering application toward women’s health, so it’s a whole new opportunity. Maybe this is a new movement?” Marcolongo asked. “It’s just an area of engineering that hasn’t been well-integrated with medicine at this point, and so it leaves a vast amount of opportunities to apply engineering principles to the care of this patient population and their specific needs.

“I feel like we’re reaching a tipping point, where there’s been a little bit of stuff going on and now it’s consolidating and becoming interesting to enough people that it could become a main thrust for research. There are enough women faculty and enough women students—and not that the men aren’t interested. It’s just maybe that they haven’t thought about it. That’s the whole idea of having diversity in a field.”

There is much work to be done, which explains why Marcolongo believes the department head post is the best place for her at this juncture.

“I really enjoy the job very much,” Marcolongo said. “It’s a challenge to me in a lot of dimensions. There are a few things left that I’d like to do, and a lot of those are bringing in more faculty and building on the success we’ve had, and expanding out a little bit more so that we can make more of an impact.”