Over Coffee – Summer 2011

Published: May 19, 2011

The academic landscape is perpetually shifting, and UMBC is reshaping existing departments and introducing innovative new programs to stay ahead of those changes. The transformations often bring opportunity as well – especially in UMBC’s ability to attract talented researchers.

Two recent changes – a merger in the College of Engineering and Information Technology to create a new Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering Department, and the introduction of a new interdisciplinary Asian Studies major – offer new vistas for Upal Ghosh, currently an associate professor and graduate program director in the department of civil and environmental engineering and Meredith Oyen, an assistant professor of history.

Ghosh arrived at UMBC nine years ago, and researches the environmental effects of toxic chemicals. Oyen, who studies U.S./China relations, arrived in September 2010. UMBC Magazine talked with them about the curricular changes and their own research.

Why come to work and teach at UMBC?

Upal Ghosh: I was a research associate and lecturer at Stanford University. What attracted me was that I was called in to start a new department. So that was a challenge, and somewhat intimidating at that stage of my career. But I thought it was an opportunity… to address emerging environmental problems in the field. It’s always difficult to change an established department. Here, we were starting from scratch, buying new equipment and had a clean slate to build new laboratories. It really gave me a feeling of excitement.

Meredith Oyen: What was appealing to me was that they were already talking about the Asian Studies program. It had been in the works for a long time. And what that means for me is that I get to have one foot in each field. I get to teach U.S. history. I get to teach U.S. diplomatic relations. But I also get to teach about Asia as well.

How will the new programs advance your own professional aspirations and research?

Upal Ghosh: Two opportunities come up with this merger. The first is that we can do something that we have not done: create an undergraduate program with an environmental focus. That’s very exciting, especially because there is such great demand. Industry wants graduates with an environmental engineering degree. And there is great demand from the students themselves, too… Students are smart. They know what they want to do, based on job prospects and what excites them in life and in pursuing a career.

My personal motivation in all this is that it brings me full circle. I started off as a chemical engineer and got interested in the environmental field and applied chemical engineering principles to my research, but I’ve been doing that in a civil engineering department. This brings me back in track more closely with my chemical engineering roots.

Meredith Oyen: One thing that excites me about the Asian Studies program is the focus on Asian languages and on taking them as an undergraduate. My greatest regret as an undergraduate looking back is that I didn’t take Asian languages until I got to grad school. If students have an interest in Asia – in industry or in NGOs or in government – having an exposure to its languages and its history and its economics and its politics is very important.

Before coming to UMBC, I taught for two years at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, and much of what they were doing was training up the American half of the program in Chinese language and culture and history – so that they can do anything China-related. That’s my hope for this program as well.

I see my own research – U.S./China relations – as a field that’s forward-looking and backward-looking. There is a long history in U.S./China relations, and that has a lot of implications for the future. I am looking forward to incorporating my own research into teaching U.S./East Asian relations.

— Richard Byrne ’86


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