Following a presentation to an alumni group in Chattanooga, Tenn., in March, Georgia Tech’s dean of engineering Don Giddens was posed a question: How will a University of Georgia engineering degree compare to one from Georgia Tech?
Perhaps it was a rhetorical question, but after some of the snickers in the crowd subsided, Giddens replied, “First of all, one of the arguments that the University of Georgia used was that … they really needed to offer engineering and medicine both in order to be a first-tier university. So our kind of tongue-in-cheek comeback to that was, ‘Are you going to add a third-rate engineering program and become a first-rate university?’”
Giddens then offered a more serious reflection on the decision made last year by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents to allow the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern to offer engineering programs. “I think in the short-term it will have no impact of significance on Georgia Tech’s ability to recruit and get good students in,” he said. “I think in the longer term, which is really the concern, it’s bound to take up resources at some level.”
He added that even if a future need for engineering graduates makes it necessary for other public universities to offer engineering programs, he doesn’t see them becoming competitive with Georgia Tech.
“I don’t lose sleep at night worrying about the University of Georgia offering engineering degrees,” Giddens concluded. “And by the time they get to the point where we might have to worry, the needs of the state may have changed greatly.”
Giddens soon will be handing off that concern and a few others on his plate to a successor. He’s stepping down as dean of the College of Engineering, a post he has held since 2002, and retiring from the Institute at the end of June.
Giddens already has plenty of things lined up to keep him busy. In July, he assumes the presidency of the American Society for Engineering Education. He heads to Imperial College London this fall for a fellowship. And he’ll be returning to Tech part time as a researcher in the biomedical engineering department.
“I’ve got lots of love for Georgia Tech,” he said. “I’m not riding off into the sunset.”
Giddens, AE 63, MS AE 65, PhD AE 66, has spent most of his career — and most of his adult life — at the Institute. Of the nearly 53 years that have passed since he arrived at Tech as a freshman in 1958, he has spent 46 of them on campus in some capacity.
He remembers the matriculation of Tech’s first black students in 1961, a vigil on campus following the Kent State massacre in 1970 and helping Tech prepare for Atlanta’s bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. He has served as a faculty member in the aerospace and mechanical engineering schools and chaired the aerospace and biomedical engineering programs. And he has worked with six of the Institute’s 11 presidents.
Hundreds of Giddens’ colleagues, former students, fellow alumni, friends and family filled a ballroom at the Georgia Tech Hotel in late March to celebrate his nearly half-century career at the Institute and applaud him for the success of the engineering program during his tenure as dean.
Under Giddens’ leadership, the College of Engineering has become the largest in the nation, and its research dollars have more than doubled, growing from about $77 million in 2002 to $204 million in 2010. Faculty has increased by 20 percent. And the number of female engineering students has increased by 30 percent, making Tech No. 1 in the nation in the number of engineering degrees awarded to women.
“On Don’s watch, Georgia Tech has graduated nearly 13,000 engineers at the undergraduate level and over 7,700 master’s students and 2,500 PhDs,” Georgia Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson said. “Now think for a moment about those numbers … and think about the impact that those students are going to have on the technology that this country will develop over the next 40 or 50 years.”
When he stepped onto the stage, a humble Giddens said although he would love to be able to take all of the credit for the college’s accomplishments in recent years he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Reflecting on his Tech career, Giddens said he is most proud of his role in the establishment of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, as the health care research to come out of the collaboration between Tech engineers and Emory doctors could have a lasting impact on people’s lives for years to come.
Giddens left a stint as dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins in 1997 to return to Tech and serve as founding chair of the department, helping recruit faculty, raise funds and map out its future. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked the department’s graduate program No. 2 among all biomedical programs in the nation and its undergraduate program No. 3.
Although he began his career as an aerospace engineer, Giddens always had a latent interest in medicine. He grew up in Augusta, Ga., where his mother worked as a cashier in a cotton mill. An only child, he wanted to become a doctor but dismissed the idea in high school, knowing there was no way he could afford to attend medical school.
“None of my guidance counselors told me, ‘Don’t worry about that. You can always borrow money and pay it back later,’” Giddens said.
He admired engineering and by his junior year of high school had decided to pursue it as a career. And Georgia Tech “was the place to do engineering,” said Giddens, who cannot recall if he even applied to any other schools.
He arrived on campus just a year after the launch of Sputnik. “Space was the buzz,” Giddens said. “Aerospace was a new and exciting field then, and it was really attractive to me, so I decided on aerospace engineering.”
A glance at the seniors section of the 1963 Blueprint shows Giddens was not yet sporting his signature beard. And his studies and co-op assignment at Lockheed seem to have kept him busy. He did not participate in many clubs at Tech but was a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Tau Beta Pi and made the dean’s list all four years.
By the time he finished graduate school, he had traded his buttoned-down look for one more keeping with the ’60s. As Giddens’ youngest son, Eric, Biol 98, said at his retirement party, “he became a hippie. Not a Grateful Dead, pot-smoking hippie, more of a Harry Chapin,” corduroy jacket-wearing hippie.
At the time, many of his generation were serving in the Vietnam War. “I was always a bit just too old to get drafted into Vietnam,” Giddens said, “and I never got a deferment.”
Giddens spent two years in California working in the defense industry on systems and re-entry weapons, research he found to be “important to the country but very impersonal.”
“Some of the things we were doing were just not very satisfying. You were working on stuff that you hope never is used. You kind of like to work on things that somebody’s going to use,” he said.
He wanted to have more of an impact on people, so a few years after joining the Tech faculty as an assistant professor in aerospace engineering in 1968 his curiosity led him to look into medical-related research. He found that his research in fluid mechanics in the aerospace field could be translated to the study of blood flow. Giddens began conducting research with a neurosurgeon and began doing more and more biomedical work and less and less aerospace studies. He eventually transferred to the mechanical engineering faculty to have more research opportunities.
Despite a return to the aerospace engineering faculty in 1988 to serve as school chair, Giddens continued his biomedical research at the Institute. He helped establish and served as co-director of the Georgia Tech Bioengineering Center, which in 1987 became the Emory-Georgia Tech Research Center, a predecessor to today’s biomedical engineering department.
Giddens has remained heavily involved with the biomedical engineering program despite the demands of his job as dean. In March, he could be seen traveling atop a camel through Abu Dhabi, where he helped a team from Emory’s School of Medicine present a proposal to establish a U.S.-style medical school there.
Stepping down from his post as dean means Giddens will have more time to devote to his cardiovascular research. He is working with members of Emory’s cardiology and radiology departments in the early detection of disease. And he is teaming up with Tech researchers to develop different kinds of treatments, such as stents, and to determine better and earlier diagnoses and treatments through image processing.
Giddens practices what he preaches. Part of the College of Engineering’s mission as stated on its website is to “strive to identify research that matters — research that addresses the big challenges in the world,” including health care, security, economic well-being and sustainability.
In his frequent trips to talk to Tech alumni clubs across the country, Giddens stresses how important it is for engineers to communicate how their profession can impact lives and help solve the world’s problems.
“How much do people in sort of the John Q public really understand about what engineering is, what its role is in society and what it can contribute?” Giddens asked on his visit to the Chattanooga Georgia Tech Club. “If we don’t attract more young people into engineering, where are the future engineers coming from?”
In 2008, Giddens chaired a National Academy of Engineering committee that developed taglines to attract more young people to the engineering field, including “Turning ideas into reality” and “Because dreams need doing.”
His commitment to engineering education will continue in his work as president of the American Society for Engineering Education, an unpaid position that will require Giddens to travel across the country to build on the organization’s relationships with other engineering societies and universities. While it is not a full-time job, he said recently that he cannot imagine taking on the role while serving as Tech’s dean of engineering.
At his retirement reception, Giddens said he’ll miss most the people he works with, though he still plans to see many of them. But he won’t miss the roughly 200 emails his office receives daily and what seems like a thousand reappointment, promotion and tenure cases he has evaluated.
“I’d be happy to let the next dean read those,” Giddens said.
He and wife Nancy already have planned a lot of travel for the coming year in between Giddens’ professional assignments. The couple have a second home in California and hope to explore the West and do some camping and hiking, though Atlanta will remain their base.
Giddens said he’s especially looking forward to spending more time with his and Nancy’s families, which include a healthy mix of both Georgia Tech and Georgia alumni. Of Giddens’ four children, two are Tech graduates, Eric and Karen Haynie, IM 81. Combined, he and Nancy have 12 grandchildren.
Asked if he has any regrets about spending so much of his career in one place, Giddens said no. “Georgia Tech has been good for me,” he said. “It gave me a lot of opportunity and a lot of training to do what I wanted to do. I could charge off into bioengineering, and everybody said, ‘Sure, OK.’”
He said Tech always has been a place that’s collegial, supportive, innovative and interdisciplinary.
“I’ve always felt at home here,” Giddens said. “Had I gone somewhere else, I guess I would have done very different things, but I never regretted in any way staying. Things always worked out very well. There were no second thoughts.”
Three Things You Might Not Know About Don Giddens
- Giddens hopes to spend some of his retirement writing short stories. He had an interest in writing growing up and often scored higher in the verbal sections of IQ and standardized tests than in the nonverbal. Giddens enjoys the works of Irish writers, including James Joyce, and masters of the short story, like Edgar Allan Poe. “I can’t say I’m well read,” he said. “I’m not by any means a scholar of short stories, I just like them.”
- The engineer has a sporty side. “I played basketball until I stopped growing,” said Giddens, a big fan of Tech basketball. He later took up white-water canoeing and while a faculty member at Tech taught a canoeing program with ORGT director Miller Templeton. Giddens passed on his athleticism to his son Eric Giddens, Biol 98, a kayaker who competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
- Eric now owns a brewpub in California’s Sierra mountains, and when Giddens visits, he often steps behind the bar to serve customers and helps bus tables.