By Pete Kennedy
When the University of Delaware opened its Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, known around campus as ISE-Lab, in 2013, it felt like Christmas Day to Dr. Domenico Grasso.
The distinguished scientist had just months earlier been named UD’s provost, its top academic official. And part of his job was literally cutting the ribbon on the new laboratory that contained a full microscopy suite, a 10,000-square-foot nanofabrication facility, and a couple of electron microscopes.
But equally exciting was ISE-Lab’s state-of-the-art teaching facility, which Grasso wanted to fill with students from throughout the university, not just budding engineers.
“We’re trying to encourage interdisciplinarity in all of our students’ education and research programs,” Grasso said. “So when I have resources to invest, I ask the deans to partner together so that I invest in multiple colleges.”
For Grasso, that holistic view of education is a reflection of his experience as a professor, an administrator and an environmental engineer focused on the behavior of contaminants in environmental systems. He once served vice chair of the Science Advisory Board to the Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked alongside lawyers, economists, physicians and philosophers, collaborating on ideas to reduce the harmful effects of pollution.
Society’s problems and opportunities don’t fit neatly into collegiate categories, Grasso said, so students should explore disciplines outside their main fields of study.
“That really encourages them to be big thinkers, and it also makes them more innovative and entrepreneurial, because they can see solutions from different perspectives,” Grasso said.
Take, for example, UD’s Cybersecurity Initiative, which launched in 2014 and in May was cited for academic excellence by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. The program is much broader than writing code.
“We try to expose students not just to the technology in cybersecurity, but also the human side — psychology, sociology, criminal justice — so we can get a better sense of human motivations and what’s happening in the cyber world,” Grasso said.
He noted that privacy issues in an increasingly interconnected world add more depth to the topic. “That’s one of the problems we’re facing in terms of societal, philosophical issues. How much privacy are we willing to give up to ensure security?”
Grasso came to Delaware from the leadership of University of Vermont, and his lengthy résumé portrays a man who crosses professional borders as easily as geographic ones.
A central Massachusetts native, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, his master’s from Purdue University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He served as a NATO fellow, helped spearhead the first environmental engineering program in Argentina, authored numerous scholarly works and is currently editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Environmental Engineering Science.
As a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, he was founding director of its Picker Engineering Program, the first engineering program at a women’s college. While at Smith, he worked with astronaut Sally Ride to create TOYChallenge, a competition in which middle school students created new toys using scientific skills.
He vividly recalls his favorite TOYChallenge entry.
“It was called ‘Wet Your Pants,’ ” Grasso said. “You had to hit the notes on these dots on the floor in the same order you heard them. If you missed one, there was a sprinkler system overhead, and you’d get soaked. It was a very cute game.
“The kids had to come up with electronics, solenoid valves to open and close the valves for the water, feedback control mechanisms. And the remarkable thing was, if you asked the kids about the technology, they could tell you exactly how it worked.”
Grasso and his wife, Susan Hull Grasso, live just a block from the UD campus. Their two sons both work at JPMorgan, and their two daughters are both UD engineering undergraduates. The family’s convergence on Delaware was serendipitous, he said, and he realizes how fortunate he is to have them close.
For all the classes he has taken and taught, or will in the future, it’s unlikely any will surpass the Groundwater Hydrology course he took at the University of Michigan. That’s where he met his wife, then an undergraduate taking a graduate-level class.
“She was super smart. She graduated with two degrees in engineering, both summa [cum laude],” he said. “And she was also very attractive. I thought I hit the jackpot. Still do.”