Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Markus Buehler

MIT’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Head

“The MIT way” is how Dr. Markus Buehler defines a quality he cherishes in the school he came to 13 years ago and where he now serves as the head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. It is a spirit of innovation and collaboration that crosses departmental lines. 

“A sort of chaotic self-organization of ideas is what makes us so successful,” he says, and he believes important collaborations among colleagues from different disciplines are born out of chance encounters in the laboratory, the cafeteria, along the Infinite Corridor or virtually anywhere on the sprawling Cambridge campus.

His own interdisciplinary work includes groundbreaking laboratory efforts to simulate materials found in nature, such as silk, bone or wood by designing, as he puts it, “new materials you haven’t seen before.” Trained as a chemical engineer, then a material scientist at Stuttgart University, he ultimately became interested in why things break.

“If we can make something as strong as steel synthetically out of sugars, proteins, anything that’s abundant in nature—materials coming out of this process will tend to be much more resilient to failure,” he says.

The spirit of cross-discipline exploration has made him greatly appreciate interaction with industry professionals who come to campus to attend his class through MIT Professional Education.

“These people get it,” he says. “They know that to get ahead in the market, they need to solve problems in the fastest, most efficient and collaborative way possible. You don’t get a prize for only working with mathematicians. You get a prize for getting the best solution. This also provides context for the work I do.”

And what Buehler does—research to strengthen complex materials—is close to the heart of many Professional Education enrollees.

“Materials are important for many different industries,” he says, “including medicine, civil engineering, mechanical design, government agencies and the military. And these people bring really interesting viewpoints, because many of them have problems with materials very far away from the problems we solve in academia.”

Conversely, Buehler says MIT has important tools to offer these professionals, such as expertise in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. “These are penetrating many different disciplines relevant to them, including computer science, chemistry, mathematics, even biology.”

MIT Professional Education short programs and custom courses draw professionals from around the world. “The more diverse, the better,” says Buehler. They usually come from different ends of the same industry or profession, such as health care or manufacturing. He encourages them to bring to class problems they’ve faced in their workplaces.

“Let’s say they want to create a new steel that can be processed at lower temperature but have a higher yield strength and not corrode as easily. I try to tie that into the fundamental skills, techniques and solutions we’ve developed in the lab.”

He also tries to make the courses interactive.

“I put them in teams and if there’s chemistry between them you can see them having a lot of fun. They get to go outside their comfort zone a little bit. Everyone brings different dimensions. My own thinking is expanded through this contact, too. And this always informs the next day of teaching. I tell graduate students or undergraduates about meeting somebody from industry who was interested in a problem we’d just discussed and how they could apply things they’d just learned to that very problem. This is really powerful for those students to hear.”

“Professional Education,” he says, “is where we can actually bring all these ideas together.”