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Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 is acting as the dean of the School of Engineering while the United States Senate decides whether to confirm Subra Suresh ScD ’81, the current dean, as the next director of the National Science Foundation. Suresh, who was nominated by President Obama in June, is on sabbatical as he awaits his confirmation.
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MIT has appointed Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 as acting dean of the School of Engineering, while it waits patiently to see if the current dean, Subra Suresh ScD ’81, will be confirmed by the United States Senate as the next director of the National Science Foundation.

Barnhart was appointed to the role on September 8, though MIT did not choose to announce the appointment until Sept. 21. Barnhart was most recently serving as an associate dean for academic affairs within the School, a role she will continue to have. MIT spokesmen did not explain the delay.

Suresh is now on sabbatical, MIT said, as he awaits Senate confirmation. He was nominated to the NSF director position by President Barack Obama in June. His nomination was approved by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions yesterday, Barnhart said. It now goes to the full Senate.

Barnhart said her strategy over the coming months would be to continue the existing priorities for the School. MIT is divided into five schools, under which departments fall.

If Suresh’s appointment is confirmed, Barnhart expects that she would continue to serve in the Dean’s role, and her title would shift from acting dean to interim dean. At that time, a formal search process will begin to look for a new Dean of Engineering. Provost Rafael L. Reif will make the final appointment.

Barnhart detailed three priorities for the school: “Bringing down the barriers”; focusing on education; and increasing diversity.

“Here at MIT, we’re really good at interacting with research and education across units,” Barnhart said. “At MIT and in the School, we’re working really hard to make sure those multidisciplinary connections can be made.”

Barnhart cited the faculty’s continuing attention to diversity. Last year for the first time, the School of Engineering hired more female faculty than male faculty, with 10 women and 9 men faculty members hired in the year ending June 2010, Barnhart said, calling that a significant milestone.

Barnhart discussed about plans to grow interdisciplinary programs within the School of Engineering, especially the new undergraduate degree in Engineering, popularized by Course II-A. Barnhart noted Course XVI, Aero/Astro, as the second department to offer the Engineering degree, and said that Course X, Chemical Engineering, will very likely be next. Course II-A is “the fastest-growing program in the fastest-growing department,” she said.

Barnhart has continued her own research throughout her tenure as associate dean, and will do so as acting dean. Barnhart is director of the “Transportation@MIT” initiative, which brings together the School of Engineering, the School Architecture and Planning, and the Sloan School of Management to focus on sustainable transportation.

The Transportation@MIT center has been integrating on-demand mobility solutions with public transportation options, letting people use rea-ltime information communications and control to improve the transporation experience.

For instance, the Future Urban Mobility program brings together computer scientists, urban planners, transportation scientists, and operations researchers to address problems in urban mobility.

Barnhart would like to do more testing around Boston, not just in Singapore and Portugal, where they have done a lot of work. While it sounds a lot like NextBus, which predicts the arrival times of local campus shuttles and the No. 1 bus, it could be much more experimental. Barnhart wants to establish a Boston-based mobility lab focusing on local transportation and mobility issues and solutions, and integrating the research results from MIT’s ongoing transportation projects in other parts of the world.

Getting the resources to do that is her top priority in her role as director of Transportation@MIT, she said.

“I’m an operations researcher — an optimizer,” she said. “I work mostly on developing mathematical models of transportation systems.” She has worked to optimize the schedules and operations of railroads, airlines, overnight package delivery services, and intermodal transportation.

Barnhart, who goes by Cindy, lives with her husband in Wellesley, Mass. They have two daughters: One is a freshman at Colby College, and the other is a sophomore in high school. Barnhart and family hosted 18 girls from the Wellesley High field hockey team to dinner last night.