Remembering NSF ERC architect and leader Lynn Preston
Lynn Preston in 2015. Left: Lynn receives a gift of appreciation from ISR Founding Director John Baras at ISR’s 30th Anniversary Celebration. Center: Then-University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan greets Lynn at the event. Right: Lynn with then-ISR Director Reza Ghodssi at the 30th Anniversary of the NSF ERC Program event on Capitol Hill.
On October 26, 2020, the Institute for Systems Research (ISR) and the University of Maryland lost a longtime friend when Lynn Preston, the retired leader of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (ERC) program, died after a lengthy illness.
“Lynn was there at the start of the ERC program and has been a great encouragement to ISR throughout our history,” said ISR Director Ankur Srivastava. “We were tremendously saddened to hear of her passing.”
The Institute for Systems Research was one of the “original six” ERCs chartered in 1985. Founded as the Systems Research Center at both the University of Maryland and Harvard University, now-Distinguished University Professor John Baras (ECE/ISR) was its first director.
“The premature passing of Lynn Preston filled me with sadness and at the same time with so many wonderful memories of her friendship, leadership and pioneering vision,” Baras said.
Baras met Preston in the fall of 1984 as the proposal for the UMD-Harvard ERC was being considered.
“I still remember very fondly the very first time we met, when Lynn came to the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel to lead me to the so-called ‘qualifying exam’ of the directors for the finalists of the first NSF ERC competition,” Baras said. “Lynn was a passionate and patient leader in the novel ERC concept and movement. She understood immediately the challenges and difficulties that the first six ERC directors and the NSF management and leadership faced as they worked to shape and organize this uniquely challenging and transformational program in U.S. engineering research and education.”
Baras recalled, “We became close collaborators and friends with Lynn throughout the ERC program's lifetime. Lynn was open to new ideas, regardless of how controversial or non-orthodox they may have seemed at first, both technical and organizational/management. I deeply admired her for this attitude. She repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary leadership, patience and flexibility.”
In a memorial tribute to Preston, longtime ERC Program communications contractor Court Lewis—who with Preston recently completed a history of the NSF ERC program titled Agents of Change: NSF’s Engineering Research Centers—wrote, “Although in her total of 42 years at the National Science Foundation she accomplished many important things and achieved high recognition for her leadership and innovative management skills, Lynn was best known for the ground-breaking ERC model of academic engineering research and education—one based on strategically planned cross-disciplinary research, strong industrial partnerships, and active involvement of students of all levels in center research—that has strengthened our nation’s industrial competitiveness and been influential in transforming academic team research, engineering education, and industrial practices.
An NSF tribute to Preston recounted the many recognitions she received for her work. “In 1999, the President of the United States recognized her service by conferring on her the rank of Meritorious Executive in the Senior Executive Service. In 2000, NSF bestowed on her its prestigious Distinguished Service Award for her leadership of the ERC Program and its role as a model program for industry/university collaboration in NSF and around the world. In 2003, she was honored by the National Society of Professional Engineers as NSF’s Engineer of the Year for her contributions to engineering research and education. In 2006, she was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering for her leadership in developing and sustaining NSF support for the field of bioengineering. And in March 2014, she received the D. I. C. Wang Award for Excellence in Biochemical Engineering, presented jointly by the Society for Biological Engineering, the American Institute for Chemical Engineering, and the American Chemical Society.”
Lewis also noted, “Awards are only an outward reflection of human qualities of exceptional commitment, leadership, character, and integrity. Throughout her long career, Lynn Preston was a creative and inspiring leader and a highly dedicated public servant, a valued colleague, mentor, and friend to many. Her achievements comprise a legacy that will long endure.”
Former ISR Director Reza Ghodssi remembers Preston not only as one of the key architects and leaders of the NSF ERC program, but also as a trailblazer who involved engineering research and education in addressing societal and grand challenges through interdisciplinary collaborations, team, and research-oriented education and mentoring.
“Lynn's visionary and committed approach towards this goal opened up opportunities for students, faculty and researchers to work side by side with colleagues in industry,” Ghodssi said. “This approach is helping to transfer basic research concepts from academia to industry—ultimately to benefit the public at large.”
Ghodssi learned about Preston and the ERC program when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1990s, but got to know her personally in 2009 during his first year as ISR director. Preston was interested in strengthening and modernizing the ERC vision among graduated and functional ERCs like ISR. In 2010 she initiated and arranged for NSF to conduct its first full-fledged, two-day external review of a graduated ERC, in honor and celebration of ISR’s 25th anniversary.
The official NSF report that came out of the review was distributed and disseminated to all the ERCs in the country, and the best practices it suggested were discussed at the 2015 30th anniversary of the NSF ERC program in Washington.
“Lynn and I became close friends afterward,” Ghodssi said. “I always treasured and appreciated the mentoring and advice I received from her. It is very seldom that one can find so many key attributes in one person, and to me, Lynn symbolized and personified everything that we always strive to be: wisdom, intelligence, patience, courage, passion, vision, leadership, and the ability to cut through useless tasks and topics while being fully respectful and understanding of everyone. I always admired her ability to seek and understand what will be important in the future and to know how to proceed and bypass obstacles to get there.”
“I will miss my friend Lynn,” Ghodssi said. “I will miss our lunch meetings, miss discussing the world's problems with her, and miss sharing our spouses' immense passion and interest in tennis tournaments. But more than anything, I will remain grateful that I had the opportunity to interact with and learn from her. People like Lynn do not come around often.”
John Baras sums up the feelings of many at ISR. “We owe Lynn so much for the success and impact of the ERC program from both our own ISR perspective and the U.S. overall. We will miss her cheerful but focused management and the always inspiring exchanges seeking improvement. May her memory be eternal.”
Published November 19, 2020