Meet the Deans

A delightfully profound Q&A with Rice’s newest leaders.

By Kendall Hebert

This fall, five of our eight academic schools have new leadership — some who have moved across the country and others who have moved into more spacious offices in their respective buildings. While we wish we could get to know these talented, accomplished and — as it turns out, humorous — deans over dinner and conversation, we settled for an unconventional icebreaker: a Proust questionnaire that ponders some of life’s most intriguing questions. From their treasured possessions to who would play them in the film of their life to revealing their superpowers and admitting the phrases they most overuse, they share the kind of biographical details not found in a CV.

Thomas Killian
Dean, Wiess School of Natural Sciences

Image
Thomas Killian illustration

Thomas Killian was appointed dean Jan. 1, 2021. He brings almost two decades of teaching and research experience at Rice to his new role. Killian’s research background is in ultracold atomic and plasma physics — under exotic conditions, matter behaves in fundamentally different ways, providing insight into the basic laws of nature and laying the foundation for emerging technological advances in timekeeping, navigation and quantum computing.

Which word would you use to describe your first impression of Rice?
Welcoming.

Of all the places you’ve traveled to, which do you reminisce about the most?
The next new place I am going to visit is always the most exciting.

Where is your favorite place to spend time with family and/or friends?
After my house flooded in 2015, my wife and I chose to knock down and rebuild. I remember the incredible support from the Rice community during this time. We designed our new house for comfortable living and entertaining friends. Every time I come home, I still have a little bit of the feeling I had when it was just finished, and we could say we were finally home.

Who would you like to play you in the film of your life?
Benedict Cumberbatch (“Doctor Strange”).

What is your superpower?
Listening to people’s ideas and concerns has always been an effective tool for me when trying to solve problems or move projects forward.

Image
Potato pizza

What advice do you have for students that is always applicable?
Use your time in college to explore broadly and find interests that will sustain you for a lifetime.

What food or recipe are you most likely to cook for a special occasion?
I don’t need a special occasion to cook the food I love. When I was in college, I was given the book “What Your Mother Never Taught You the Pizza Gourmet Will!” Ever since then, making homemade pizza for family and friends has been a signature thing for me. It’s a staple when the family gathers to watch a movie and for make-your-own-pizza nights with O-Week groups. My favorite recipe is for potato pizza — dough, Havarti, thinly sliced red potatoes, topped with mozzarella, and no sauce.

Igor Marjanović
William Ward Watkin Dean, School of Architecture

Image
Igor Marjanović illustration

Igor Marjanović joined Rice July 1 from Washington University in St. Louis. Trained at the University of Belgrade in his native Serbia, he completed his Ph.D. at University College London and practiced architecture in Belgrade, Brazil and Chicago. Marjanović’s research integrates the teaching of studio and theory with historical scholarship on architectural pedagogy, practice and identity formation.

Which word would you use to describe your first impression of Rice?
Shadows. I am in awe of the meandering shadows of Houston’s live oak trees, and I try to have as many meetings as possible under their magnificent canopies.

Do you have a motto or favorite phrase?
“A great city may be seen as the construction of words as well as stone.” — Yi-Fu Tuan

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Family. My spouse Jasna, a pharmacologist, our son Milan, a student at Poe Elementary, and our life together. That is an endless source of love and joy every day.

What food or recipe are you most likely to cook for a special occasion?
Pasta. Red ragu sauce. Period.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Delicate.” I use it constantly to refer to food, drawings, buildings and more.

Image
Artifacts and a record of civilization

Of all the places you’ve traveled to, which do you reminisce about the most?
Elba Island in the Mediterranean, a place where cultures and seas overlap.

What is your superpower?
Optimism. It has given me so much in life.

What is your most treasured possession?
Books. They are both artifacts and a record of civilization, just like buildings.

What advice do you have for students that is always applicable?
Be yourself, be proud of who you are and where you came from.

Rachel Kimbro
Dean, School of Social Sciences

Image
Rachel Kimbro illustration

Rachel Kimbro ’01 assumed her role July 1. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and policy studies at Rice and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton before returning to her alma mater as a faculty member in 2007. Her work is at the intersection of sociology, public health and public policy, and her research agenda focuses on the health and well-being of children, specifically how neighborhood and family environments influence healthy development.

Which word would you use to describe your first impression of Rice?
Warm (both meanings of the word).

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
My two wonderful teenagers, Eleanor (18, a Sid Rich freshman) and Thomas (15).

What movie have you watched many times and/or always recommend?
I love any Jane Austen adaptation — my favorite is the 1995 BBC miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“It’ll all work out.”

What is your superpower?
Coaxing flowers to grow in Houston’s heat.

Which living person would you most like to have dinner with?
George R.R. Martin. I have questions for him.

Who would you like to play you in the film of your life?
Probably Rachel Weisz or Claire Foy.

Image
Rachel’s Underwood typewriter

Of all the places you’ve traveled to, which do you reminisce about the most?
Guanajuato, Mexico, a city I was introduced to by my colleague Sergio Chávez [associate professor of sociology] and have now visited several times. It’s simply magical.

What is your most treasured possession?
My great-grandmother Rachel’s Underwood typewriter — it reminds me of all the women who came before me but didn’t have the same opportunities I have had. And, yes, I am named after her.

What advice do you have for students that is always applicable?
It’s never too late to try something new.

Luay Nakhleh
William and Stephanie Sick Dean, George R. Brown School of Engineering

Image
Luay Nakhleh illustration

Luay Nakhleh, a member of the computer science faculty at Rice, was appointed dean at the beginning of 2021. A former department chair, Nakhleh launched Rice’s first online degree in the School of Engineering, the Online Master of Computer Science program, and was instrumental in growing the Professional Master of Computer Science, Rice’s largest nonbusiness professional program. His research interests are in combinatorial optimization, statistical inference and their applications to biological problems.

Do you have a motto or favorite phrase?
If you’re in a leadership position and everyone is happy with you, then you’re not doing your job.

What is your most treasured possession?
A photo album of my grandparents. My grandfather led a very exciting life that included, among other things, serving in the British army and serving as a member of the Israeli parliament. The photo album documents his and my grandmother’s life together, with photos from the 1940s onward.

What is your go-to special occasion food?
A good, thick, juicy steak. If I’m making it, then rib-eye; if someone else is making it, then filet mignon (since I don’t know how to grill a filet mignon without either burning it or basically serving it raw).

Image
Rib-eye

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
With my wife, raising two kids (15 and 12) who, at a very young age, care about social justice and about the underprivileged. My daughter keeps telling me that college students are paying way too much in tuition and fees and that I’m overpaid; about the latter, I’m glad she doesn’t advise the provost.

What movie have you watched many times and/or always recommend?
“Despicable Me,” as I relate very much to Gru, not only in terms of looks but also attitude.

Which living person would you most like to have dinner with?
Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins.

What advice do you have for students that is always applicable?
I always tell the students to care about learning, not about grades, and to follow their passion, not money.

Matthew Loden
Dean, Shepherd School of Music

Image
Matthew Loden illustration

An award-winning musician and symphony leader, Matthew Loden returned to Rice for his new post Oct. 1. He most recently served as CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and also served as director of admissions for the Shepherd School from 2002 to 2007. Loden has performed around the world, judged competitions, served as a speaker for national conferences, and been a music panelist and university lecturer.

Which word would you use to describe your first impression of Rice?
Vibrant.

What is your most treasured possession?
My “modern” 1911 Ambrogio Sironi violin; it fits like an old friend and makes me sound better than I really am.

Where is your favorite place to spend time with family and/or friends?
Our family and friends are spread out all over the world, but we’ve been able to spend a few holidays in Bavaria, which has a warmth and aesthetic that really speaks to us. We’re mountain people!

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Researching, designing and building a Japanese teahouse in my backyard. Bringing various sketches to life and creating a balanced space with my nascent carpentry skills felt amazing.

What movie have you watched many times and/or always recommend?
“Roma.”

Image
mountains

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In interviews, I always manage to say “absolutely” in response to just about any question; from “Letterkenny,” I can riff on “to be fair” for days; and, of course, “Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica.”

Who would you like to play you in the film of your life?
Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor, “Friday Night Lights”).

What is your superpower?
Sweating the details.

What advice do you have for students that is always applicable?
“The greatest teacher, failure is.” — Yoda

Illustrations by Allison Johnston