It has been almost a year since Diana Marculescu — a renowned expert in energy-aware computing and a former faculty member and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University — began her tenure as the chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UT. As the new leader of the Cockrell School’s largest department, Marculescu oversees a community that boasts five top-10 programs, over 2,000 students and over 30 IEEE faculty fellows. We sat down with her to learn more about her priorities for the department and her long-term vision for the future. 

Diana Marculescu portrait

You have spent much of your academic career as a leader at Carnegie Mellon University, world-renowned in computer science and engineering. What motivated you to move to Texas, and what excited you most about Texas ECE and the Cockrell School?

At Carnegie Mellon, I basically grew up as an academic — it’s where I established my lab and did the research that I’m known for. And through the years, I was fortunate to work with truly excellent students. I even became the first woman hired as an assistant professor to be promoted through all the ranks to full professor. The opportunity to join Texas ECE as a chair and professor came about unexpectedly, but it turned out to be a perfect match between what I was prepared for and what the department and the school were looking for. I was already aware of the department’s excellent reputation, yet it was the people and the culture that made me certain UT was the place to be. I have felt at home here from the start.

Tell us about your transition to UT. What has been your impression of the department thus far — and of living in Austin? Has anything surprised you?

I am truly fortunate to be in a department like ours, surrounded by colleagues who are not just excellent scholars but also dedicated educators and caring members of our community. While as a department we are known for our research excellence and top-ranked degree programs, you can only experience the Texas ECE community if you are part of it. The sense of community — along with the core principle of tending to the common good — is what has impressed and inspired me most. This may be surprising, given that we are one of the largest departments on UT’s campus, but it’s the truth. Texas ECE is a unique and special place.

As for moving to Austin, we were lucky to find a nice home before the pandemic hit. Having a trailhead five minutes away from our house, where we can explore during Austin’s “nine-month-long summer,” has been an especially nice bonus. So many people warned me about the long, hot summers, but I’ve actually enjoyed the weather so far!

Tell us a little about you. What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab or running a department? What are your passions?

When I’m not busy Zooming in and out of meetings (literally!), I try to read. Reading has a way of clearing my thoughts, and I think it also makes me a better decision-maker. We live close to Barton Creek and really like to hike the trails. It’s been a privilege to be able to enjoy unadulterated nature while being less than a half hour away from campus and downtown. We also love to travel. We go to Europe every year to see our family, though that’s obviously on hold for now.

What do you feel are the strongest aspects of Texas ECE? What sets it apart from peer departments across the U.S.?

Texas ECE is really extraordinary in its breadth and consistent strength across all ECE areas. This is very hard to achieve and only few institutions manage to pull it off. How does Texas ECE do it? I think it’s a combination of true commitment to scholarship, no frills camaraderie (and no competitive attitudes) and unassuming excellence in the classroom, in the lab and in the entrepreneurial undertakings of our faculty. Furthermore, the demographics of our undergraduate student population is much more reflective of the state (and even the nation) than our peers. I firmly believe we have an opportunity and a responsibility to show that achieving true representation, equity, accessibility and justice is possible in concert with excellence in education, research and community-building.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Texas ECE? And how has it shaped, or perhaps changed, your approach to leadership and your plans for the future?

I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the impact that the pandemic has had and will continue to have on the members of our community. It is inherently challenging to lead change and jumpstart strategic visioning, but it can be downright grueling when compounded by a public health crisis, against the backdrop of demand for swift social change, unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.

As a department, we had to pause, reflect and then completely change how we achieve our mission. What didn’t change is staying true to our values by ensuring that we continue to deliver value in education, learning and research while at the same time caring for those most vulnerable: the youngest, least represented or marginalized members of our community. Yes, I had to change the timeline on which we can move forward with our priorities, reassess the resources that we had at our disposal and, to some extent, redefine our short-term goals. But that also meant listening more and checking in more frequently with everyone in the department.

What are your long-term strategic goals for the department, and what steps are you taking to achieve them?

We have just started to work on our strategic goals. With the help of our faculty, our two newly appointed associate chairs and our standing departmental committees, I have identified several priorities that will inform our strategic vision moving forward.

First, we aim to not only maintain, but also enhance our leadership status in ECE. Our goal is to build on our strengths and expand in areas with direct impact on society, especially at the nexus of machine learning/AI and systems, IoT and data/network science, and vertical system integration. And we want to advance in these areas so we can solve critical challenges especially in energy and the environment, and health and medicine. This is what I call “ECE for Good” — the indispensable ingredient that can advance “Engineering for Good” as it builds the devices and systems that will help humanity overcome challenges posed by the future.

Second, we are and likely will continue to be the top producer of ECE undergraduate degree holders in the nation, and we have a responsibility to ensure that our students are not just prepared to solve today’s problems but able to adapt to the problems they may face in future decades. Rigor and agility, coupled with a positive learning experience and enhanced student success, is what will guide our priorities in education.

And finally, the engine behind everything is our Texas ECE community. Empowering individuals and ensuring that everyone is included, respected, supported and heard is the key piece that will guide our work.

In 280 characters or less, what is your vision for Texas ECE?

Texas ECE aims to be the innovation hub for advancing research, education, learning and entrepreneurship in the field of electrical and computer engineering — all in service of solving societal challenges and ensuring equity, access, representation and empowerment for all members of our extended community.

As new tech startups emerge, new industries are formed and new technologies are developed seemingly every day, the disciplines of electrical and computer engineering, in particular, are critical to economic growth. What role does Texas ECE play in this?

Texas ECE is uniquely positioned to drive innovation and change — not just in engineering and technology but in virtually all aspects of our lives. We build the systems that run so many facets of our lives. Just think about your day. From the smart devices that help you navigate your waking hours to the technologies that control our energy, sustenance and entertainment, every one of those devices and platforms was built by electrical and computer engineers. It is thus natural that we not only have a role but also a responsibility to drive innovation. And as a result, we can impact not just the local economy but also the global stage. We have the unmistakable advantage to be in the city of Austin where the tech scene is second only to the Bay Area. As one of the nation’s largest producers of top ECE graduates, Texas ECE can lift up the city and the state to greater heights. Without a doubt, what starts in our department will change the world.