Rodney Priestley, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and vice dean for innovation, was named the next dean of Princeton’s Graduate School on Wednesday, March 9.
His predecessor, Sarah-Jane Leslie, the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy, stepped down as dean in July 2021. Cole Crittenden, Deputy Dean of the Graduate School, has served as acting dean in the interim.
After months of searching, a faculty and graduate student committee chaired by Provost Deborah Prentice selected Priestley for the position.
“Rod will make a wonderful Dean of the Graduate School. He is a committed educator, a creative problem-solver, and an empathetic listener and observer,” Prentice said in a University press release. “I expect that he will flourish in this role.”
Priestley first joined the University’s faculty in 2009 and became an associate professor in 2015. He was appointed as a full professor in 2019 and assumed the role of vice dean for innovation in 2020.
Since his time at Princeton, Priestley has performed groundbreaking research in materials science. His research group focuses on how “materials that undergo changes in their properties and join together when confined in tiny spaces” can be used for drug delivery, designer colloids, sustainable manufacturing, and other applications. Priestley has also published over 100 articles, co-founded two startup companies based on inventions made at his University laboratory, and co-invented 10 patent-pending technologies.
His most recent startup is AquaPao, a company that applies the technique he developed with Postdoctoral Research Associate Xiaohui Xu for solar water purification to expand access to clean water. His work was featured in publications including Newsweek and Fast Company.
In 2021, Priestley received the Clio Award from the Graduate School for his efforts in strengthening “entrepreneurial awareness and training for graduate students” and developing inclusive leadership training.
He is also the co-director of the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub, a Princeton University-led consortium of regional universities that will form a new innovation network with a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
“[Priestley’s] vision, creativity and energy have enabled transformative initiatives, such as the Princeton Alliance for Collaborative Research and Innovation and the START fellowship, that speak to Princeton’s bedrock commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to a robust engagement with the broader innovation ecosystem,” Pablo Debenedetti, the Dean for Research and the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science said in the University press release. “He will now bring his outstanding scholarly, entrepreneurial and leadership credentials to his new role as dean of the Graduate School.”
During his tenure, Priestley will be working to continue progress towards diversifying the graduate student population and cultivating a more inclusive environment. As the faculty co-director of the Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellows Program and faculty advisor to the National Society of Black Engineers student chapter, Priestley has worked to improve diversity and address underrepresentation across campus.
In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote, “With his appointment, the roles of Dean of Admission, Dean of the Faculty, and Dean of the Graduate School will all be filled by Black scholars and administrators, who play important roles in admitting undergraduate students, hiring faculty, and admitting graduate students, respectively.”
He will also be leading the Graduate School during a period of new investment. Recently, the University announced it would increase graduate fellowship and stipend rates to attract the best graduate candidates. With Princeton’s Lake Campus Development currently undergoing construction, new facilities will allow Princeton to offer housing to all of its graduate students, as well as serve as potential sites for new, world-class scientific facilities.
“My interest in becoming dean of Princeton’s Graduate School originates with my own personal experience of graduate school,” Priestley said in the University statement. “The mentorship, encouragement, and support I received has enabled every goal I have reached throughout my career. My advisers’ belief in me has always inspired me to give back to others to whatever extent possible.”
“I’m really, really excited to be able to serve a wide range of graduate students, and hopefully impact their graduate education in a manner that they have an experience that’s as good as the one that I did,” he added.
Priestley will begin his new role on June 1, 2022.