When you go to visit H. Keith Moo-Young, it's instantly clear why the dean of the engineering department at this working-class campus has been recognized not just for the science he has done, but for the education of scientists as well.
First of all, it takes a month to get on his schedule. He does make the time to talk, but in the halls of the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology at California State University at Los Angeles, you'll never manage to get his undivided attention.
Walking through the crowded, well-scuffed hallways with Moo-Young is like walking across the town square with a local politician. Everyone in sight has an urgent matter. There are proposals to be tweaked, papers to be signed. A group of three intense young staffers sidelines him with a problem on a proposal that clearly has them worried. Moo-Young deftly takes over the page in question and tells them he'll handle it.
On this morning, he can't sit down to talk in his office, because it's full of other staff members trying to work through another problem. But he does find a spot in smaller side office with a small couch and a couple of chairs, and he talks about how he got to this spot.
He goes through the research he has done as a student and professor. He studied civil and environmental engineering for his master's degree and Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The work drew on interdisciplinary studies in geology, environmental science and engineering, along with some chemical engineering.
As a professor at LeHigh and Villanova universities, he helped develop safe methods of using paper sludge -- the waste material created in the manufacturing of paper -- as lining for landfills. These methods have been used in landfills in Massachusetts and Finland for 20 years now. Other projects included finding methods to recycle steel slags and developing a device that can determine how much coal tar can be left in the soil, which is an issue for companies during cleanup operations.
His discussion about the research has a somewhat mechanical feel, as if he's addressing a grant committee.
But as Moo-Young starts talking about his time at Cal State guiding a program for students who started out a lot like him, his story comes alive.
"When you walk around the college and see the kids, a lot of them are like me. They have immigrated, or their parents immigrated. The power of higher education has significant impact on their lives. It's a really rewarding experience, especially on graduation day."
Moo-Young was one of seven children of parents who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica.
To his parents, who didn't finish high school, education was the No. 1 thing, or "the only thing," Moo-Young says.
His high school counselor in Tacoma Park, Maryland, helped him get a full scholarship at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, and there he developed strong relationships with faculty.
"From the time I was a sophomore, they knew I was going to get a Ph.D," he says.
He learned about the interdisciplinary program at Rensselaer University through a summer program. At Rensselaer, a school of 6,000 students, he learned how to fluidly get things done by working with several labs.
"No one person or lab had everything. A lot of times, it was bartering and trading. It was always that trade-off."
Several years later, he learned more about the process of bartering in science through a AAAS science policy fellowship with the EPA. During that time, he gained "enormous respect," he says, for the scientists who work at the agency, and the process opened his eyes to "the political nature of things."
"The turning point," he says, \was the fellowship and seeing that there's more to science than doing the science. I wanted to have an impact through science policy and administration."
Because of that experience, he was open to hearing from AAAS Fellow John Slaughter, former director of the National Science Foundation, when Slaughter suggested the idea of applying for the job of dean at Cal State Los Angeles.
Despite initial reservations about leaving the East Coast, Moo-Young has been at the campus for seven years. He talks about the students' achievements like a proud parent.
"We are the de facto football team," Moo-Young says of the engineers, who contend in competitions, like the NeXt Challenge, a national competition to reduce the environmental impact of a Chevrolet Malibu without compromising performance, safety and consumer acceptability. One of the school's eco-cars, the Solar Eagle III, won the Sunrayce a few years ago.
But the biggest thing, he notes, is this: The opportunity to award science degrees to urban students creates broad change. Every time an inner city student gets a degree, he says, and gains the potential to enter the middle class, it changes that student's entire family.
"It makes you feel good when you go home," he says.