Rakesh Goel developed an interest in earthquakes at an early age — and rather abruptly.
As a small boy in India, one of his first memories is of experiencing an earthquake.
“I must have been a few years old and there was a big earthquake,” said Dr. Goel. “I clung to the window, thinking that it was a big freight train going by the house.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, India, he earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in structural engineering from UC Berkeley, where he was studying when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The magnitude 6.9 quake, centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains, struck on Oct. 17, killing 63 people, injuring thousands and causing $6 billion in damages.
“That really left an indelible impression on me as to how earthquakes can upend people’s lives in a matter of seconds,” said Goel.
While at Berkeley, he was also part of a reconnaissance team for the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
“It’s unbelievable, the damage that you see.”
He later traveled to India after a large earthquake there.
“I was talking to people there as to how it had impacted their lives. Some had just lost loved ones from collapsed buildings during the earthquake. Looking into their eyes left a lasting impression on me — I realized that there are things I could do to make an enormous impact in saving lives.”
Goel said those experiences led him to work in applied research. Some of his work has been adopted into the California building code, which is used for design and safety assessment of buildings and bridges. He also has worked on seismic codes for analysis and design of near-shore piers and wharves in California.
Goel, who most recently served as executive associate dean in the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, took over as dean of the UC Merced School of Engineering on Oct. 1. He recently sat down to answer some questions.
Q. What drew you to UC Merced?
A. I have thought a lot about why UC Merced. I am a product of the oldest campus in the UC system. It is exciting to come back to the newest campus in the system and give back. I am drawn to the diversity of the student body here and what that means to the future — of both the students and the region (and beyond). I am a first-generation college student, and to be able make a difference for a vast number of first-generation students on this campus would be immensely rewarding. When I met students during my interview, I really saw my own reflection in them. Finally, I found the opportunity to be part of a fast-growing institution appealing as it transitions from its start-up phase to a steady state. I see many opportunities on this campus to make a difference that can leave a lasting impact of lives of students, faculty and staff.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish at the School of Engineering?
A. I am passionate about student success. Student success has many dimensions. It is about making sure students graduate in a timely manner, and they can find good jobs. I also link it to the success of our faculty and staff. We need to make sure our faculty are doing innovative research, so we need to provide them with the facilities and support to thrive and be successful. And our staff are the ones who make things happen in the background. I want to make sure they are successful and have all the support they need to be able to do their jobs. I am meeting with all faculty and staff in the School of Engineering, and one of the questions I am asking them is, “What makes you happy in your job here?” and “How can I partner with you to increase your happiness?”
Q. What are some of the challenges ahead?
A. The university is going to continue to grow in the next five to 10 years anywhere from 50 to 75 percent. I do not talk about challenges; I talk about opportunities. There is an opportunity to do thoughtful, planned growth. When we grow our student body, we need to make sure we have enough support, faculty, staff and facilities to provide them the best possible education. Another opportunity I see is to improve on the success of our students. When I look at the graduation rates we have right now, I think we can do a lot better, and there is the opportunity to take it to the next level. There are aspirations for this university to become a Research 1university. We achieved R2 status in record time. Now, the opportunity is to lead the School of Engineering as we continue to contribute to the university achieving the R1 designation.
Q. What would you like people to know about you that they may not know?
A. I am a straight shooter. I am accessible. I like working with people. And that means our students, faculty and staff, as well as the community.