Adam K. Leibovich became the Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and College of General Studies on July 1. A professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Leibovich most recently served as the school’s Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development. In addition, in 2022, Leibovich was named director of the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute, a collaborative interdisciplinary organization that advances research, education, and training in quantum science and engineering.
A prolific scholar and award-winning teacher, Leibovich joined the faculty of Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy as an assistant professor in 2003, and became the Department Chair in 2015 and associate dean in 2017.
He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1992 and his doctorate in theoretical physics from California Institute of Technology in 1997. From 1997 to 2000, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University and from 2000-2002 a postdoctoral research fellow at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).
As he begins his deanship, Leibovich shared his thoughts about the Dietrich School’s expansive research initiatives, his goal of fostering cross-disciplinary discovery among faculty, and the important contributions made by undergraduate researchers.
Q: What are some of the “big questions” that stand out to you among the research underway at the Dietrich School?
A: From fundamental particle physics to understanding how the mind works, to philosophy of language to how cultures develop, to the musical, narrative, and theatrical practices of Sundanese people in West Java, the Dietrich School is home to innumerable research interests. Every single day, we’ve got great minds pursuing the kind of big questions that will shape the future.
Q: You have said that you were initially drawn to academia because of your interest in research. Can you say more about that realization and what led to it? What excites you about research?
A: I’ve always loved reading, and when I was younger I couldn’t get enough science fiction. It absolutely fueled my interest in science. While I knew that time travel wasn’t a possibility, it did make me want to understand how the universe worked. As an undergraduate, I worked in a couple different research labs where I got to see firsthand how research was done. And that work—that opportunity to ask questions and be part of discovering the answers—was thrilling.
Q: Providing Dietrich School students the opportunity to participate in mentored research as early as their first year through your Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (OUR) is a signature offering at your school. The benefits to the students are clear, but what do faculty members gain from mentoring undergraduate researchers?
A: Faculty members absolutely benefit in a number of ways from having undergraduate researchers involved in their work. First, undergraduates bring a sense of enthusiasm and curiosity. And they ask questions from that fresh perspective — oftentimes, questions that others have overlooked or just not considered. Second, the hands-on contributions, the time and effort that undergraduates dedicate to the work, can really advance the research that’s being done. Third, undergraduates frequently propose their own ideas for research. That can end up taking an existing project in a new direction or launching something completely new. As a member of several Goldwater committees, I’ve seen this time and again.
Finally — and I say this as someone who’s worked with many undergraduate researchers — there’s something really satisfying and gratifying about mentoring the next generation of thinkers. To be able to introduce undergraduates to that process of discovering new knowledge — there’s nothing quite like it.
Q: How does the Dietrich School support early career faculty with their research goals?
A: If you want to attract world-class research faculty — and we do — you create a supportive, resource-rich environment so they have what they need to thrive, whatever their discipline. That’s our goal at the Dietrich School. Some of that is being able to provide physical resources, such as facilities and equipment. Some of it is having a network of world-renowned interdisciplinary centers to be able to plug people into, such as University Center for International Studies (UCIS), the Center for Philosophy of Science, the Humanities Center. Some of it is streamlining process and removing some administrative burdens. That’s where our Sponsored Projects team comes in, and it’s an area where I’d like to see us make some additional investments in the next year or two. But probably the biggest thing is our community — the unbelievable faculty, staff and students who are participating in the research endeavor here. Our senior faculty are incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge, and time and again, I’ve watched them take new colleagues under their wings and mentor them. It really sets the tone.
Q: One of your goals as Dean is improving cross- and inter-disciplinary research within and beyond the school. How will you accomplish that?
A: Some of the most exciting work that happens at the Dietrich School is a result of faculty from different disciplines just talking with each other. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to get siloed within your own discipline. I want us to break down those silos.
Among our most popular undergraduate majors are collaborations between faculty in different disciplines or even different schools. Our new (DNID) major combines coursework in English, computer science and information science. Our new physics and quantum computing major is a collaboration between the Dietrich School and the School of Computing and Information and includes coursework in physics, math and computer science.
Our students don’t think in rigid terms of departments and disciplines and schools. And I want to work with our faculty to see how we can foster more cross-pollination and collaboration. That starts this fall when I begin my listening tour with our academic departments.
Q: How do you envision future collaborations between the Dietrich School and the University’s Office of Research?
A: We’ve benefited from great support from Pitt Research over the years. Senior Vice Chancellor Rob Rutenbar and his team are incredible partners. They understand that for faculty to conduct the leading-edge, externally funded research that makes the University of Pittsburgh an elite R1 institution, there needs to be a strong foundation in place. The Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research has continued to expand the resources for faculty to really encompass every aspect of the research endeavor. I look forward to continuing the very productive work we’ve done together to foster and further our faculty’s research ambitions.