Ohio State University (OSU) has hired roboticist, entrepreneur, and educator Ayanna Howard, Ph.D., as dean of the College of Engineering, the university announced this week. She will be the first woman to lead the college. Nationally, only 17% of engineering deans or directors across the country were female, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
Howard will join Ohio State on March 1 from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she is chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing as well as founder and director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab (HumAnS).
Her career spans higher education, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the private sector. Howard is the founder and president of the board of directors of Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech spin-off company that develops mobile therapy and educational products for children with special needs. Zyrobotics products are based on Howard’s research.
Throughout her career, Howard has been active in helping to diversify the engineering profession for women, underrepresented minorities, and individuals with disabilities.
“Dr. Howard is an innovator whose skills and passion are a perfect fit with Ohio State’s focus on convergent research and discovery,” said President Kristina M. Johnson. “To attract a leader of her caliber shows both the strength of our engineering program and the acceleration of the university’s overall research mission.”
Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce A. McPheron noted that Howard will be joining Ohio State amid substantial university investments in the advanced materials corridor, interdisciplinary research, and the West Campus Innovation District.
“As a comprehensive research university, Ohio State provides opportunities for innovations across fields and sectors, with benefits to our students and the broader economy,” said McPheron. “Dr. Howard has the perfect background to advance innovation in the College of Engineering, throughout the university and with industry partners.”
Howard’s appointment as dean, which is subject to the Board of Trustees’ approval, will be effective March 1, 2021. She will also be a tenured professor in the college’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with a joint appointment in Computer Science and Engineering.
“I’m thrilled to join Ohio State at a time in which there is so much potential to strengthen and build new partnerships in order to expand access and enhance opportunities for the next generation of students, alumni, and for economic development throughout Ohio,” said Howard.
Howard will follow Dean David Williams, who announced in May 2020 that he would be stepping down after a decade leading the College of Engineering.
“Dean Williams’ legacy will be felt in the college and throughout the university for years to come,” said McPheron. “Under his leadership, the college emphasized engineering innovation as it expanded academic programs, grew its research portfolio, and updated the labs and other spaces where students and faculty learn and discover. Dr. Howard will build on this decade of growth into the future.”
Ohio State’s undergraduate engineering program is ranked 15th among public universities nationwide and the graduate engineering program is ranked 17th, according to U.S. News & World Report. The college serves more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students; employs 950 faculty, research scientists, and staff; and operates a $150 million-a-year research program. Engineering works with strategic partners including Battelle, Boeing, GE, Honda, NetJets, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and NASA Glenn Research Center.
Howard earned her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Brown University, her master’s degree and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, and her MBA from Claremont Graduate University.
From 1993 to 2005, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she held multiple roles including senior robotics researcher and deputy manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist. Among other projects, Howard was involved in developing SmartNav — an autonomous, next-generation Mars rover — and SnoMotes, toy-sized robots that can explore icy terrain that is too dangerous for scientists.
She joined Georgia Tech in 2005 as an associate professor and the founder of the HumAnS lab. The lab focuses on humanized intelligence, which uses techniques such as sensing and learning to enhance the autonomous capabilities of robots or other computerized systems. The HumAnS lab has generated more than 250 publications and $8.5 million in principal investigator-led research funding.
Among other roles at Georgia Tech, Howard was program director of the nation’s first multidisciplinary robotics Ph.D. program; associate chair for faculty development in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and associate director of research at the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.
In 2013, she founded Zyrobotics to help translate the lab’s research into commercial products for children with special needs. Zyrobotics spun off as a nonprofit in 2020.