Suresh, former director of NSF, returns to Brown Engineering as Professor at Large

Subra Suresh
Subra Suresh

Subra Suresh, a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur with decades of distinguished and impactful leadership in academia, industry and government, has been appointed Professor at Large in the School of Engineering effective September 1. He returns to College Hill where he spent his first ten years as a faculty member beginning in 1983 and was promoted to full professor in 1989. During his tenure at Brown, he wrote the textbook Fatigue of Materials, which became an authoritative reference in material science.  In 2003, while serving as head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Suresh also published the book Thin Film Materials, coauthored with L. Ben Freund, former professor and Chair of the Division of Engineering at Brown University.

Suresh has remained a friend and supporter of Brown Engineering and accepted the Brown Engineering Leadership Medal in 2018, an award introduced to celebrate eminent scientists who are not alumni of Brown Engineering, but have made significant contributions to the School or to the field of engineering.

He is formerly the president of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore from January 2018 to December 2022, and was the ninth President of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) from 2013 to 2017. Before that, he served as Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) from 2010 to 2013, and Dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering from 2007 to 2010 at MIT, where he was a faculty member for two decades. In June 2023, he was also appointed a member of the Board of Trustees of the California Institute of Technology where he had previously served as the Gordon Moore Scholar and the Clark B. Millikan visiting professor.

Suresh was the first Asian-born American to hold the position of director of the NSF and served as the 13th director of the organization, after he was nominated by former President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. During his tenure as NSF director, he emphasized the translation of basic research into commercial opportunities, collaborative research at the interface of scientific disciplines and across geographical boundaries, and the creation of favorable work environments for women scientists and engineers.

Suresh had his first formal association with NSF in 1985 at the age of 27, when he won the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, which supported his research for five years. At that time, he was the youngest member of the engineering faculty at Brown.

As Director, he oversaw an annual budget of $7 billion to support fundamental research and innovation in all fields of science and engineering and related education in more than 2,000 institutions across the U.S. and in a number of research facilities across the globe from the Arctic to Antarctica. 

Suresh established the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program aimed at translating research discoveries into industrial practice. Launched in 2011, this effort was praised by Harvard Business Review for using “lean startup techniques to turn scientists into entrepreneurs.” It has since been replicated by a number of government organizations in the U.S. and abroad. At NSF, Suresh also helped to establish the Global Research Council and the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide program. 

While serving as President of NTU and CMU, he held the distinction of being the only university president elected to all three U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. He has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Inventors. In recognition of his “outstanding accomplishments in technological innovations that contribute broadly to the development of industry and benefit society,” the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) selected Suresh for its highest honor, the IRI Medal, in 2015. 

As a researcher, Suresh has studied the properties of engineered and biological materials, and their connections to technologies and human diseases. In addition to more than 300 published research articles, he has co-authored 30 patent applications and three books which have been translated into Chinese and are used as textbooks or research monographs. 

Over the years, Suresh has held numerous professorships and other visiting appointments at universities around the world. His work in nanobiomechanics garnered him a spot in MIT’s Technology Review magazine in 2006 as a Top 10 researcher “whose work will have a significant impact on business, medicine or culture.” He was also chosen by Science Watch/Thomson Reuters as one of the top 100 most impactful materials scientists (based on publication citation impact) during the decade 2000-2010. 

His many honors include: the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards, from the President of India; the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the President of the Republic of France; honorary fellowship of St. Hugh’s College at Oxford University in the UK; the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; the FEMS Medal from the Federation of European Materials Societies (the first non-European selected to receive this highest scientific honor from the Federation); the IRI Medal from the Industrial Research Interchange that “recognizes and honors leaders of technology for their outstanding accomplishments in technological innovation which contribute broadly to the development of industry and to the benefit of society”; and the ASME Medal, the Timoshenko Medal and the Nadai Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; the Ross Coffin Purdy Award from the American Ceramic Society; the Robert Mehl Medal, the Champion H. Mathewson Medal and the Robert Lansing Hardy Medal from The Metals, Minerals and Materials Society (TMS); and the Acta Materialia Gold Medal for his research accomplishments.

He is an elected member of 16 science and/or engineering academies based in the U.S., China, France, India, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Singapore and Spain. He has 20 honorary doctorates from universities around the world including Zhejiang University (China), Northwestern University (USA), University of Southampton (UK), Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), Warwick University (UK), St Petersburg Polytechnic University (Russia), Dartmouth College (USA) and his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), as well as IIT Roorkee and IIT Hyderabad.

Born in India, Suresh graduated from high school at 15 and received his undergraduate degree in first class with distinction from IIT-M, which recognized him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 1997. He received a master’s degree from Iowa State University and went on to complete his doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT in just two years.