Incoming vice president for research driven by curiosity, student success

Jeffrey F

I meet Jeff Rhoads and his wife, Janine, in front of the Basilica on an early spring day — the kind that demands both sunglasses and a sweater. Surrounded by extended family following their niece’s baptism, it feels a bit as if University photographer Matt Cashore and I have been invited to a family reunion — more of a “catching up” than an initial introduction.

Jeff and Janine’s 6-year-old twin boys quickly make themselves at home, finding the best sticks to pick up and rocks to hop on. I find children effortlessly adapt to their surroundings, but maybe especially so on campus, where the sights, sounds and smells feel inviting and ready to be explored. Or, maybe it's because this isn't their first visit to the University.

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Janine, a 2001 graduate of Notre Dame, points to her father, a 1969 graduate, as she introduces the family. Her three sisters and one brother-in-law are alumni, as well. She reminisces about her time in Farley Hall. A reunion, indeed.

Jeff, a leading mechanical engineering researcher, will begin his appointment as vice president for research on July 1. He holds three degrees from Michigan State University and joins Notre Dame from Purdue University, where he currently serves as executive director of the Purdue Institute for National Security and as a professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering.

I ask what drives his passion for research.

“It’s honestly a very simple answer,” Rhoads says. “I’m a naturally curious person. I appreciate people who are curious about the world and want to understand it better. I think that is something inherent to the human spirit: trying to understand the world we live in, this beautiful place, and how we can make it better. And research is certainly one of the key avenues through which we can explore and make the world a little bit better place.”

Rhoads will also hold an appointment as a full professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. His research interests include dynamics and vibration, energetic materials, additive manufacturing, micro- and nanoelectromechanical systems, and engineering education.

As we walk from the Basilica to McCourtney Hall, there’s plenty of activity on campus, even on a Sunday afternoon. You can’t help but sense the excitement of spring and the energy of the students enjoying it.

“I would not be in academia if it wasn’t for students,” Rhoads shares. “Often when people think about research [in higher education], they think about a decision between whether you’re going to be teaching-focused or research-focused. I find it to be a false narrative. Students are central to what we do with research at a university, whether that’s undergraduate or graduate researchers. Research is part of the educational process, because research is about teaching people how to think and discover; how to be analytical and deductive and reasoned. Research is a complement to what happens in the classroom. And it’s really those two things together that I think make a world-class university like Notre Dame.”

With $244 million in research award funding last year, Notre Dame is one of the fastest-growing research institutions in the nation. Rhoads will succeed Robert J. Bernhard, who announced in September 2021 that he would step down from his role, a position he has held since 2007.