Growing Research, Exponentially
Lai will lead large-scale research at Pitt Engineering and build on her leadership at the Department of Defense, NASA. Her Pitt portfolio will include national security research, industry partnerships, and furthering Pittsburgh’s role as a tech leader.
Swanson School names Eva Lai Director for Partnerships and Innovations
Lai proudly shows off a NASA mission patch on her left arm from an award-winning project she led in 2011.
Eva Lai has been impressed by the innovative research at the University of Pittsburgh for some time. Now she’s part of the team that’s growing its potential.
Lai made a site visit to Pitt in 2006 when she was building a national research program for regenerative medicine for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to address wounded warriors’ injuries. Lai, a chemical engineer and deputy chief scientist with the DoD, was in the process of meeting with experts from universities, government and industry to understand the state of the science and determine how to create a program that could move more discoveries from laboratories into commercialization. She was impressed by the depth and collaborative spirit of the bioengineering work underway at Pitt.
Over the years, as Lai continued developing and managing complex multi million-dollar research programs for the DoD, she was always impressed when she came across conference posters or plenary talks about Pitt research and technologies. Now she is working at Pitt to elevate research and the transfer of the university’s technologies into real-world uses.
Lai was named director for partnerships and innovations at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, with an additional appointment as visiting research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. She began her appointment February 1, 2022.
With Dr. Lai on our team, we will forge ahead with our plan to position the Swanson School of Engineering as an economic driver in the global marketplace.
“Dr. Lai thinks big and has unique expertise for developing, procuring and managing large strategic initiatives. She sees the immense potential for Pittsburgh being a stronger economic driver for the entire region,” said James Martin, U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering, who recently completed a new strategic plan for the Swanson School, “Engineering the Future.” Focused on people, partnerships and translation, the school’s strategy calls for exponential growth in research initiatives, such as centers and institutes, as well as strategic partnerships with industry, government agencies and the community writ large that contribute to regional and national GDP, along with increased educational access and enhanced diversity. Martin said that Lai’s role meshes perfectly with that vision.
“With Dr. Lai on our team, we will forge ahead with our plan to position the Swanson School of Engineering as an economic driver in the global marketplace,” said Martin. “She will work to expand the global reputation of our research enterprises and academic excellence, triple our research revenue, and help accelerate Pittsburgh’s continued shift from an Industrial Age economy into an advanced technologies ecosystem and innovation hub.”
Tackling the Hard Problems that Need Solutions
“There is so much promise at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Lai. “There are a lot of innovations, talented researchers, and leaders. I can’t wait to learn more about the University’s capabilities and bring people together to tackle the hard problems that society needs solutions for.”
Lai has long been interested in building new technologies. In high school, she tried out a summer architecture program. Making a tower with a utility knife and cardboard was a tedious process, and she wished she had better tools and materials. She went on to earn a PhD in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and later worked as a senior scientist for NASA. At the Office of Space Flight, she led a $1 billion robotics development and acquisition program.
Lai served in multiple positions, including as deputy chief scientist, with the DoD’s U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command from 2006 to 2021. She played a key senior role in launching the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine that resulted in over $200 million in research investments, provided oversight of $500 million in annual research programs for the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center as its deputy chief scientist, and leveraged the Small Business Innovation Research program to fund over $40M in new product lines ranging from mobile health applications to sensors to cell therapies.
During her time with the DoD, Lai served on the chemical and biomolecular engineering research faculty at Johns Hopkins University. She also continued collaborating with NASA colleagues. She was awarded a Certificate of Outstanding Achievement for managing a research project in record time so experiments could be conducted on the last mission of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. The project evaluated how microgravity affects cells healing from injury.
Collaboration is Key
In her new role at the Swanson School, Lai will begin by collaborating with Heng Ban, Richard K. Mellon Professor and associate dean for strategic initiatives, on managing and expanding research projects of importance to national security that are funded by the DoD.
“The Army needs major university teams with multidisciplinary expertise and tools to help advance fundamental science and engineering in certain applications,” said Ban, citing a project titled Enhancing Soldier Protection Against Evolving Threats that he’s leading with funding from the Army Research Lab. His team, which is developing materials and designs for modern helmets and armors as well as understanding injury mechanisms, includes experts in biology, materials, mechanics, and health sciences from several Pitt schools as well as three other universities.
“Dr. Lai started major research initiatives for the Army. Having someone who is familiar with that process can help us better position ourselves and formulate our teams to meet the Army’s needs,” said Ban. “She has a very strong technical background, and she will be a big boost to our research strength and help us build our alliances with multiple schools and universities.”
“Collaboration is key,” said Lai, noting that Pitt’s Center for Military Medicine Research is a key partner for the Swanson School’s DoD projects.
Lai will also work with Pitt’s Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships to lead the school’s partnerships with Pittsburgh’s legacy companies and new startups alike. She will also work to attract outside companies to the region.
“Dr. Lai has a high level of sophistication when it comes to working with lots of different constituents at different levels,” said Martin. “Her expertise, demonstrated skills of leadership, and high levels of execution on really big initiatives will help drive Pitt Engineering toward meeting the needs of the future.”
This article was authored by Cara Masset, contributing writer for the Swanson School of Engineering.