July 26, 2021 – Magnus Egerstedt took up his post as the new Stacey Nicholas Dean of Engineering at the UCI Samueli School in July. He comes to Irvine from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he had served as the Steve W. Chaddick Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Egerstedt is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, as well as a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the International Federation of Automatic Control. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and linguistics from Sweden’s Stockholm University, a master’s degree in engineering physics, and a doctorate in applied mathematics at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
A highly respected robotics and control systems researcher, Egerstedt will continue his research, including the development of a hyper-energy-efficient environmental monitoring robot called the SlothBot, in his new lab in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building.
Q. After 20 years with Georgia Tech, why did you decide to uproot and come to UCI?
I recently found myself at a point in my career where I was increasingly drawn to questions that require a significantly larger footprint and approach than what any individual lab can provide. I started looking for a place that was ambitious, hungry, and had outstanding faculty, students and staff. UCI is firing on all those cylinders, and it is clear that the Samueli School of Engineering is a place where one can make big things happen. At the same time, the school’s overall mission aligns very well with my own values, with a focus on diversity, social mobility and impactful research.
Q. What are your plans/vision for the Samueli School of Engineering?
I am convinced that “people is policy,” meaning that we should double down on our efforts to recruit the best and most diverse faculty, students and staff. But it does not end with recruiting. We need to have a supportive and collaborative culture where we go after large-scale, high-impact/high-risk projects together – and where we celebrate each other’s successes and achievements. I am also very interested in student experiences outside of the classroom, and I hope to help enhance our entrepreneurship pathways, international opportunities, undergraduate research programs and makerspaces. But the first order of business is to get out of the dean’s office and into our classroom and labs, listening to our stakeholders – internal as well as external – to learn as much as I can about the Samueli School and what makes this place tick.
Q. Your higher education path was broad and interdisciplinary. How did you land at engineering?
At heart, I like to solve problems that matter. And that is what engineering is all about. So, in some sense, I have always been an engineer even though I came to that realization in a rather roundabout way. My educational journey went from philosophy and linguistics, via engineering physics and applied mathematics, to a research and teaching career in robotics. These detours may have given me a slightly unusual outlook on the engineering discipline and curriculum, and I am a big supporter of flexible and customizable educational paths through our programs. My journey has certainly also influenced how I think about the engineering discipline as a force for good in the world. At their best, engineers are fearless innovators who can enhance the human experience through rigorous problem-solving and creative applications of a wide range of scientific disciplines.
Q. Tell us about your research.
My research focuses broadly on how to make large teams of robots come together and solve tasks in a collaborative manner, the way schooling fish or flocking birds can produce intricate geometric patterns and formations. This is an area known as swarm-robotics, and the fundamental problem is how to structure the algorithms so that individual agents can make decisions, learn from their experiences, and act in such a way that useful patterns and strategies emerge at the team level even though no individual robot has complete knowledge of the world. The applications I have pursued include platoons of autonomous vehicles, robots for precision agriculture, environmental monitoring robots and mobile sensor networks. I have also made a number of connections between robotics and the arts, including robotic marionettes, dancing robots that improvise with human dancers, robots that paint, and robots that respond to musical moods and melodies.
Q. What role will diversity and inclusion have in your plans for the school’s future?
If you look at the big, defining questions of our time, like “How do we feed a growing planet?” “How do we protect our environment?” “What does the future of work look like?” or “How do we achieve effective healthcare for everyone?,” engineering plays a key role in all of them. But these questions require a collaborative approach where diversity is key. Simply put: Diversity and inclusion make us better engineers. But not only that. Public universities have a responsibility to serve our local communities and to act as an engine for social mobility. To that end, we want to be a place where people from all backgrounds and groups are not only welcome, but where everyone feels like they belong and can thrive professionally and personally. As such, diversity and inclusion are very important to me as dean, and I am impressed with the efforts currently underway in the Samueli School of Engineering.
Q. Who or what inspires you?
That’s an easy question. By far my most important source of inspiration is my students. Working with students is the most fun and rewarding aspect of being a professor, and I consider it a privilege to be allowed to play a small part in their intellectual journey. And I just love being surrounded by talented, passionate and driven students who keep me on my toes intellectually and make sure I keep growing, not just as a researcher and educator, but also as a human being.
Q. As a student of philosophy, do you have a motto or creed by which you follow?
I really don’t have a creed nor anything particularly profound that I follow. But before I take on a new project, I always ask myself two questions: “Does it matter?” and “Is it fun?” Unless the answer to both questions is “yes,” I tend not to pursue the project. For sure, if the answer to both questions is “no,” then it is a non-starter.
Q. What do you like to do for fun?
If you asked me at age 10 what I wanted to do with my life, the answer would undoubtedly have been soccer player. At age 20, the answer would probably have been rock star. Alas, neither of those two career paths materialized, but I still very much enjoy playing soccer (I have already found a pickup game in the University Hills area) and playing the guitar. I also enjoy hiking and lately I have become enthralled with the “ultralight” movement, where the aim is to take as little as possible on backpacking trips and still enjoy the experience. But my main source of joy and fun is my daughters. They are accomplished aerialists – think Cirque du Soleil – and I have really enjoyed spending the last decade as a circus dad.
Q. What’s on your reading list these days?
I tend to read multiple books at the same time. And they typically are rather different. Currently I am reading “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle, which looks at how successful and innovative organizations are structured (Hint: The number of meetings or the email volume have nothing to do with it); Delia Owens’ beautiful story “Where the Crawdads Sing”; and “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, which represents the sci-fi/fantasy genre that is my guilty pleasure.
Q. How are you and your family feeling about moving to Orange County, California?
Overall, we are very excited about the many opportunities here. As a family that likes being outdoors, Southern California is hard to beat. But after 20 years in Atlanta, a move like this is always bittersweet. To make matters a bit more complicated, my twin daughters, Annika and Olivia, are currently seniors in high school, so the rest of the family will actually stay back in Atlanta for a year while they finish up high school. Who knows where they will end up after that? California is certainly a possibility. My wife, Danielle, is a poet and she will move here next year to join UCI, teaching in the Department of English.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am excited about taking on the role of Stacey Nicholas Dean in the Samueli School of Engineering, and I am looking forward to getting to know everyone in the school. I am not planning to become an abstraction hidden away in the dean’s office, but to spend as much time as I can in the classrooms and labs to really get to know the school. It is fortunate that I get to join the Samueli School as we are (hopefully) coming out of a pandemic and people are itching to get back together to make big things happen. I particularly look forward to playing my part in that.