Samuel Easterling, an Iowa State alumnus, has been named the James L. and Katherine S. Melsa Dean of Engineering at Iowa State.
Easterling attended Iowa State for his doctorate in structural engineering after receiving his civil engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees from West Virginia University.
Easterling is joining Iowa State after being a Montague-Betts Professor of structural steel design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech). He began his tenure here at Iowa State on July 15.
Easterling’s adventure at Iowa State began during his search for a graduate school. Easterling and his wife, Pam, were visiting Pam’s sister and brother-in-law in Ames. Pam’s sister was a staff member in civil engineering at Iowa State and her brother-in-law worked as a faculty member in physical education.
Easterling’s sister-in-law asked other faculty members at Iowa State where they recommended their students go for a doctorate. They posed the question ‘why not here?’ Easterling then visited the department and was pleased with what he found.
“It was just a perfect situation for [Easterling and his wife],” Easterling said. “It was a great department, a great group of faculty. We liked Ames.”
Easterling said he and his wife have always lived in relatively small towns — often college towns. They had family in Ames and the city felt like a good fit for them.
“It was almost by accident but it turned out to be a great decision,” Easterling said.
After Easterling received his graduate degree from Iowa State he became a faculty member at Virginia Tech, where he spent 32 years. He made his way up the ranks of faculty and served as the head of the department of civil and environmental engineering for his last l0 years.
The process of searching for a new Dean of Engineering began in late 2018. An advertisement was put in many major engineering publications and the applicants for the position were screened in early 2019. The candidates went through an interview and presentation process.
“We had a very strong pool of applicants and each one of them had their own strengths,” said Gary Mirka, a co-chair of the search committee for the Dean of Engineering and professor of engineering. “One of the characteristics that made Dr. Easterling a strong candidate was of course that he’s a very strong scholar with a lot of experience and leadership.”
Mirka said Easterling has a lot of energy with a vision that is consistent with the college of engineering and is very student focused. He also said Easterling wants to be sure the engineering students have what they need to become leaders in the future.
Easterling has had the support of his wife throughout his career. They married after undergraduate school and have been by each other's side ever since. Easterling said it was important to have the support structure of his wife while raising their two children and focusing on work.
Easterling said in his professional career he received a lot of support and guidance from colleagues here at Iowa State as well as from Virginia Tech. Easterling has found that he formed friendships as a graduate student and amongst those he has worked with.
“What you find is working with faculty members it’s a different dynamic than traditional student in a class — you’re working side by side,” Easterling said. “You come in obviously with a high respect for them and I think they develop respect for you and it’s really a great team environment.”
When speaking about Easterling’s enthusiasm to learn about Iowa State, Mirka said learning and making decisions on how things can be improved are characteristics of a great leader.
“Even though I’m an alum there are a lot of things about Iowa State that I don’t know operationally,” Easterling said. “I’m spending a lot of time in departments learning about what they do in terms of research and facilities, spending time with groups outside the college.”
Easterling is accessing the engineering department at Iowa State and learning how it operates. Easterling is also thinking of ideas he’d like to incorporate into the department.
“The nice thing about coming to Iowa State — such a great university, a great college — there aren’t a lot of things to fix; you’re coming into a well oiled machine,” Easterling said. “[Retired] Dean [Sarah] Rajala had done a great job and the college is in great shape.”
Easterling said he thinks something that can be improved is the graduate program. He wants to spend additional attention on graduates and evaluate how they can grow the program. Easterling is also aware of the challenges that come with the rapid growth of students attending Iowa State.
“It’s great that we bring in students in great numbers but we have to be prepared to offer the quality education that is the reason students want to come to Iowa State,” Easterling said. “We can’t just bring people in the door without paying close attention to how we’re going to take care of them, and our faculty and staff think about that too, everyday.”
Easterling said it’s his job to learn how things are done at Iowa State. He said he will be a bit reserved before making changes as he wants to spend a lot of this academic year becoming more knowledgeable about Iowa State and its engineering department.
“It sometimes sounds maybe a little dry and boring but I really do love the work,” Easterling said. “In the work as a Dean it’s a lot about interacting with people. My calendar is full of opportunities to engage and talk with people and meet with people.”
While Easterling is passionate about his work he also enjoys spending time outside, whether that’s golfing, fishing or visiting national parks with his wife. Easterling said he also enjoys talking with his children, who both live in Virginia, and looks forward to them visiting.
Easterling is still active with the American Iron and Steel Institute and the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has received several awards for his research and professional service.
Easterling said he is thankful for his time spent at Iowa State as a graduate student and now a faculty member. He is looking forward to his work as the Dean of Engineering and what he can accomplish with the help of other faculty members.
“The success that I’ve had professionally can be directly attributed to the faculty and mentoring and experience here,” Easterling said. “I feel a significant debt of gratitude to the department and the university.”