Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 6: College of Engineering Dean Erick Jones

College of Engineering leads the way in preparing students for roles within the lithium supply chain

President Sandoval sits to the left of Dean Erick Jones in a podcast recording room with three mics on the table in front of them.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Dr. Erick Jones (right) discuss Jones's first nine months in his role as dean, his plans for the future of the College and more.

Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 6: College of Engineering Dean Erick Jones

College of Engineering leads the way in preparing students for roles within the lithium supply chain

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Dr. Erick Jones (right) discuss Jones's first nine months in his role as dean, his plans for the future of the College and more.

President Sandoval sits to the left of Dean Erick Jones in a podcast recording room with three mics on the table in front of them.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Dr. Erick Jones (right) discuss Jones's first nine months in his role as dean, his plans for the future of the College and more.

Sagebrushers podcast identifier with a sketch of a sagebrush in the background
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major platforms

In Sagebrushers season 2 episode 6, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval hosts the dean of the College of Engineering, Erick Jones, Ph.D. Jones was most recently a senior science advisor in the Office of the Chief Economist at the U.S. State Department prior to joining the University in September of 2022.

During the episode, Sandoval and Jones discuss Jones’s background working with supply chains as an industrial engineer, his first nine months as dean and the partnerships the College of Engineering has made with corporations and government agencies. They also discuss the lithium initiative and the ways in which the College of Engineering and other schools and colleges on campus are giving students hands-on learning opportunities that they cannot receive anywhere else in the world.

Sagebrushers is available on SpotifyApple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode twice a month.

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Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 6 – College of Engineering Dean Erick Jones

Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and College of Engineering Dean Erick Jones discuss Jones's background as an industrial engineer, his plans for the future of the College and the opportunities students will experience as the University expands its lithium initiative.

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Dean Erick Jones: What we're doing here in Nevada, Reno really is building that student of the future, that worker of the future, the engineer of the future, that at some level we're going to be ahead of the curve.

President Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Dr. Erick Jones, our new dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada Reno. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.

Dean Jones is a former senior science advisor in the Office of the Chief Economist at the U.S. State Department. He also is a former professor and associate dean for graduate studies at the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington and a former professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Jones held engineering management and executive management positions in industry.

Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. Dean Jones, welcome to Sagebrushers. I am so excited to have you on the podcast today. So, welcome.

Dean Erick Jones: Thank you.

President Brian Sandoval: So, before we chat about your current role, let us talk about your journey to the University of Nevada and, you know, where are you from and a little bit about your family.

Dean Erick Jones: I'm originally from Houston, Texas, grew up in a normal household, played two sports, and two-letter high school athlete. We went to this small college in Texas called Texas A&M in College Station. As an engineer, an industrial engineer, I had never thought I'd be in academia to be quite frank.

My career, I became an engineer at this company called United Parcel Service, or UPS, paid for my master's degree and through happenstance worked at several companies. One as a vice president of engineering at a very young age, and then went to a consulting firm, Tompkins Associate initially, and then went called Arthur Anson, LLP, where I worked,it was strangely enough on supply chains. They called it mergers and acquisitions, but it was aligning supply chains. Fast forward several years later, I got my doctorate in it, working at, University of Nebraska Lincoln, as you mentioned in your introduction.

And one of the focuses again was logistics, engineering and supply chains. Fast forward to, UT Arlington where, I was a professor there, but I also got a chance to do a stint at the National Science Foundation. And also, returning upon that, I got an opportunity to be an associate dean. And then, to be frank, I'm an Aggie. So when, the service called, I went. And so, the Trump administration initially called me to look at supply chains. And then, through the vetting process, we changed presidents.

Then I got an opportunity to go work for the last administration. So, how I ended up here. The exciting part was there's this amazing president in Nevada, who was a two-time governor, took on this role as a president of Nevada. And I was doing a study on lithium supply chains. I was working with the Department of Energy and there's this amazing thing that's here in Nevada.It's not gold; it's lithium. So, I got a chance to come interview. The president knew a friend of a friend because I wasn't sure I was going to get out of my government job. And, here I am.

President Brian Sandoval: And you said you're an Aggie, and once an Aggie, always an Aggie.

Jones: Yes, sir.

President Brian Sandoval: Now you're a member of The Wolf Pack Family.

Dean Jones: I’m a Pack, yeah.

President Brian Sandoval: So, before we get into, because I want to talk about these, supply chains and your experience over the nine months that, that you've been here. But I know you're a proud husband and father.

Dean Jones: Yes, I am. Well, you know, if you let me brag about my spouse. She's an amazing scientist, neuroscientist, and, Alicia is really well known, as far as, women's sleep, women's health and also the challenges that you have with, they call it neurodiversity now, but it was really at some level, mental health and how that's impacted by sleep and other activities. And I proud poppa of two twin boys, Matt and Chris, and quite frankly, the loves of my life. And, you know, I think that they're having just as much fun, if not more in Nevada as far as the skiing, the snow shoveling and also all the outdoor activities that the Reno Tahoe area provides.

President Brian Sandoval: That's fantastic. So, as I mentioned, you've been here a little over nine months. What are some of your observations in the, in the nine months with regard to the community and the weather, all those things?

Dean Jones: Well, I find it's very exciting and of course, you know when I initially came, they said there's not that much snow. So, we've had record snowfall, but I do think working, living in Nebraska, Lincoln prepared me for shoveling snow. But, also the community has been, has had open arms. We, you know right now, with the, with the institution in the direction its going, the new leadership, there's great excitement, COVID's ending, and students are really, really wanting to join the Pack. And with all the activities we have going in the state, northern Nevada and southern Nevada, we have this amazing excitement.

And I also think that coming out of a global understanding that many people are embracing some of the activities that we're trying to push out through our engine innovation ecosystem. So, I think it's a very exciting time, both personally and also professionally, because again, we are going to, you know, as Wayne Gretzky, Gretzky would say, since we're in snow, we're going to where the puck's going. And I think that our engineering is, we’re stabilizing our greatness that we already have, but we're also skating towards the future and think we could be a very powerful college of engineering in the near future.

President Brian Sandoval: So, give us a peek inside the College of Engineering. What are your plans?

Dean Jones: We are in the process of our strategic planning process, which, you know, trying to align to our president's strategic plan. But some of the things that we have found out through having outsiders come in from government agencies, former presidents, very notable scholars on our first part of our strategic planning process. We had these great people come and really kick the tires on where we are today and where we could go.

And we found out we were amazing when it comes to equitable community infrastructure that impacts fire, water and hazard. We're amazing with earthquakes, our water center’s second to none. And then as we talk about community infrastructure, we also have a very strong connection to the health community. As we talk about, as we look at the net neutral zero sustainability pillar that we've defined, our students are so engaged and so locked into the COP26, COP27 activities that we're looking as far as global warming and carbon reduction.

And then as we talk about supply chains, clearly, lithium supply chains or critical mineral supply chains as we [define] more general, but also the EV batteries, the semiconductors that we're working with the 14-nanometer chips for our future resilience and supply chains, and then also finally the active-pharma and pharma ingredients.

So, when I look at these pillars and connected our 88 tenure-line faculty and our 40 non-tenure-line faculty, we have an abundance of talent that's really at some level doing the best in the world research. And tying to Morrill Act, I call it requirements or actually promise that we have in the state, really getting our students involved in the future, getting the research circled back, back into the classroom where when every one of our students gets ready to graduate, which was already happening, that we have more job offers than we have students graduating. I love that phenomenon and I also, the feedback we're getting from companies like Tesla, Lithium Americas, Redwood Materials, saying that you guys have the best students and to continue that tradition and to keep building towards the future.

President Brian Sandoval: You mentioned it earlier in the podcast and you just mentioned it again with how Nevada is uniquely situated with regard to lithium. And as we like to affectionately call it the, the lithium loop: we can mine it, we can process it, we can manufacture it, and we can recycle it. So, given that in, and I should have said this earlier in the podcast, I really do believe you're the right person at the right time with the skillset that, that we need given this new Nevada that, that we have. But let's talk about that lithium supply chain that you've introduced.

Dean Jones: Well, when we look at the lithium supply chain, supply chains are larger than engineering to be very frank. And so, something we've looked at is the lithium initiative we have here on campus, which connects the business school, the Mackey School of Mining and also the College of Science, along with others to be very frank. We're finding out there's so many connections across campus, but, you know, we've started an initiative of talks where we're going through the different parts of the nodes of the supply chain.

And no, there won't be a test, but when we talk about a node – from the time we identify the lithium with the, you know, unmanned vehicles with geo and then geothermal digs to the time it's mined to the time it's transported to processing plants, to the time it's created as a battery pack, and then the battery pack can go into two supply chains: EV cars or just battery walls, things such as walls.We are at some level at the nexus of all of this.

And then for perspective when I worked on supply chains, lithium supply chains at the state department, there are only four places in the world that have lithium reserves that people are looking for to support EV car batteries. They would call the lithium triangle. You'd have Argentina, Belize and Chile, and then Nevada. So, I remember I was doing research and I said, wait a minute, where's this? And so, it's always an exciting opportunity to say that the next gold in Nevada is lithium.

And again, try not to get into too much trouble. We are Lithium Valley, I know there's this, this state next to us that keeps claiming it, but it's technically in Nevada, Thacker Valley. So, I think we are the right place, right time, the right students and the right leadership. And again, the governor has mentioned lithium loops.

We are a small part of that, but I think what we're doing here in Nevada, Reno really is building that student of the future, that worker of the future, the engineer of the future, that at some level we're going to be ahead of the curve. Our students, I feel in the next couple of years, what we're bringing to the table is like no other. We will be duplicated. I will be frank, you know, you get a lead, you won't have a lead too long. But I think that when you're looking at, if you're, if you're in any company in the country right now and you're looking at EV batteries, EV walls, tying into the power grid, you have to look here first. And what we like to do is provide the right student, it's clearly the right engineer, but through the innovation ecosystem, it connects every student.

President Brian Sandoval: Well, you're obviously proud of our students and you mentioned some of these companies, Tesla, Panasonic, Dragonfly Energy, Lithium Americas, the list goes on and on. Talk about some of the, the relationships and internships and opportunities for our students with these companies.

Dean Jones: Well, like I said, as I've been here and quite frankly, the community has opened arms, including the companies and even the state agencies. One of the things that we're looking at, and then there's great promise is that partnering with companies such as Tesla or Lithium Americas, they are very excited about providing opportunities. Obviously engineering but also across campus for these internships or externships where the students get access to labs, equipment, materials, thought process, that they're not, they're not gonna get anywhere else in the world.

And so when we talk about, when we look at work, the complete workforce, whether it's “K to Gray” in the state, you know, the opportunity to go work at some of these companies that are, like I said, going towards their future and also jumping on this great mission that every young person's going to want that's under 40, is that we have this global challenge and reducing 1.5 degrees in the next 35 years.

Companies like Tesla led by Elon Musk have set priorities that we're gonna get there. The only way they're gonna get there is to lithium and lithium supply chains. But also, the fact that these new, you know, new cars, the EV car manufacturing activities, we're having just as much output as Germany, as China. And so, the fact that we are right there and the companies are wanting to create those partnerships with us here in Northern Nevada and specifically UNR, I think that it's an opportunity that providing to our students brings me a great joy to even talk about it. And the fact that we get to do it and be first in class at doing it. So thank, thank you for letting me talk about this.

President Brian Sandoval: It's fantastic. And you know, what I was thinking is we have our listeners and if they have prospective students and they're looking at, at different colleges and universities, what would you tell a prospective engineering student who's looking at different places, why is the University of Nevada the place for them?

Dean Jones: Well, thank you for that low hanging pitch. I think we are the future. And again, if you get me really excited, I’ll, I'll get in trouble. But, number one, the lithium process manufacturing, the way that that's gonna have to be approached is gonna be differently than, than we've had we've done in 25 years. Clearly, as we outsourced manufacturing in, in the late eighties and the early nineties, we never thought we would fall behind in manufacturing, quite frankly, having a school like UNR and for us actually going towards things. I'm an industrial engineer, we're hopefully bringing industrial engineering to the state, but the manufacturing process, systems engineering that's tied to the lithium supply chain, is the only place you can do that is’ gonna be here.

Eventually, it can be done in other places. I'll be frank cause I got some friends who are deans. But clearly, if you want to be ahead of the game, you want the internships, you want to partner with the right companies, this is the place to do it. And I'll be frank right now, and this is the only place you can do it. Again, we have a lot of smart engineers in the country. Here,we have Lithium Valley, we are the Lithium Valley area, we are the lithium supply school. And I think that we have some great excitement.

And again, one of the things that we're big here at UNR is about collaborations. So even though I'm the dean of engineering, the other deans, the other colleges, the other schools, even theliberal arts college wants to connect the dots to this great movement. Our governor's talking about lithium loops. This is the spot; this is the future spot. And so again, I bring with that great excitement that, you know, you should want to become. And there's this small place called Tahoe that's beautiful, that is good to spend your weekends in as a student. And so, we have a lot of great things beyond this. But I also think we have some great things that are coming. So, thanks, thanks for that question.

President Brian Sandoval: Oh, thank you, Dean. And we love your enthusiasm. And by the way, you mentioned Tahoe. We do have a campus at Lake Tahoe, the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe in Incline Village, the Wayne Primm Campus, which will be a great opportunity for our students. But in any event, unfortunately, I wish we had more time, but thank you for being a part of this episode of Sagebrushers.

Dr. Jones, thank you for joining us today, and I know our listeners have learned so much. Ladies and gentlemen, join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our university special and unique. Until then, I’m University President Brian Sandoval, and go Pack.

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