Blog: Thomas Zurbuchen

A native of the Swiss mountains, Thomas Zurbuchen, Ph.D is a
University of Michigan professor of space science and aerospace engineering and the founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at U-M's College of Engineering. The center seeks to empower students, faculty, and staff to fulfill their entrepreneurial aspirations and to connect with local small businesses. In conjunction with the student entrepreneurship organization MPowered, his team has engaged well over 1,000 students.

Thomas teaches in the professional space engineering graduate program and leads the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group, which analyzes data from the ongoing NASA Ulysses, WIND, and ACE missions; develops new theoretical concepts and models; and constructs new flight instruments. It also focuses on breakthrough technologies such as micro-fabricated instruments and remote sensing, and on novel space system designs for future missions and broader engineering applications. Most recently, his group built the FIPS instrument for NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

Thomas is the vice president of institutions and a board member of the Universities Space Research Association. In addition, he sits on the board of two University of Michigan start-up companies and is a member of the science advisory committee to Goddard Space Flight Center.

He has testified on Capitol Hill on numerous occasions and is a recent recipient of the distinguished Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
Thomas Zurbuchen - Most Recent Posts:

Thomas Zurbuchen - Post 3: "The Future of the University of Michigan Depends on Entrepreneurs!"

I don't say this to everyone, but here goes…

There's more to education than professors, classrooms, labs and writing papers. Engineering education – even a great education at the University of Michigan – requires the participation of community partners who provide hands-on experience with aspects of entrepreneurship that students wouldn’t encounter on-campus.

That's why the university is looking for individuals who’ll come to campus and discuss their challenges and real-world problem-solving. In the words of those old "Uncle Sam" recruitment posters, "We want you."

Contact us at the Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE). Soon. Now. While we’re talking, we’ll tell you what’s going on:

1) This week we’re launching a new research program for small companies. It's one of those win-win propositions – a good deal for the business and their bottom line, and a good deal for the university and its students.

2) We're matching companies with energetic, highly intelligent, unusually motivated Michigan engineering students who need advisors, role-models and challenging projects such as those going on at your company.

3) We've put together new classes that allow students to work in companies, paired with a set of activities at U-M, to get academic credit.

4) We run a job fair – the MPowered Career Fair – that connects small companies with U-M students.

A lot of leaders talk about the importance of keeping students in Michigan, because talent and drive are invaluable. You can help by hiring them as interns, because those who intern in Michigan are three times as likely to stay and take a job with the company that they've come to know.

Right now, the nation's large companies aren't hiring much, so some of the best students won’t have jobs for the summer. And Michigan’s entrepreneurship support organizations: the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, SmartZones, Employment Training and Community Services, the chambers of commerce, etc., aren't setting up fellowship programs in which small Michigan companies hire interns from universities throughout the state. U-M isn't the only Michigan institution with gifted students who need support.

There's unique opportunity in Michigan right now to create something new – a truly modern innovative entrepreneurial community. We're here, ready to play ball. It's not just because we’re part of this community; it's because it elevates who we are and what we will become.

Thomas Zurbuchen - Post 2: "The University of Michigan, Entrepreneurship, and its Students"

Students from the state of Michigan know the score. These are times of fierce economic challenges – perhaps more so in Michigan than in any other state of the union. Teachers also know that they have to change the way they do business – they’re well aware of what lies ahead for their students, especially those pursuing engineering and science degrees. Education has had to change with the times.

Today’s world is flat and changes rapidly! Competition is fierce – each engineer we educate in the U.S. has to compete with 50 engineers on the global stage. So education had better be good. And it had better be relevant.

Unfortunately, to a certain extent our education has lost value – a diploma used to be a passport to a great career; now it’s merely a single-entry visa. It’ll get a student his first job. After that, however, it takes a lot more than a piece of sheepskin and good performance on the job to maintain a career. It takes a mindset that one must become a life-long learner – coasting on yesterday’s knowledge and achievements doesn’t cut it anymore. Students’ success will come from a never-ending process of learning and incorporating that learning into their lives. It will also come from developing an entrepreneurial mindset.

Entrepreneurs are a different breed. In the words of two who would know – Hoa Ma, a professor of management at Peking University, China, and at the University of Illinois – Springfield; and renowned entrepreneur Justin Tan – entrepreneurs are people with a mindset that gives them “the desire to achieve, the passion to create, and the yearning for freedom, the drive for independence, and the embodiment of entrepreneurial visions and dreams through tireless hard work, calculated risk-taking, continuous innovation, and undying perseverance.” Entrepreneurs aren’t just two guys in a garage; they are people Michigan needs to fill its companies, small and big, if the state is to strive again!

We want to produce entrepreneurial engineers at the University of Michigan. But we can’t do that only by preaching in classrooms which we’re doing very persistently, by the way. We also have to give our students the encouragement, the resources, the challenge, and the empowering feeling that we want them to go out there and try.

Michigan's universities are addressing this challenge. We're not there yet, but we're surely on the way. I'm optimistic about the future of Michigan because I can see our young students' potential waiting to be unleashed.

Thomas Zurbuchen - Post 1: "The University of Michigan and its State"

The University of Michigan is great because of two important aspects:
  1. it is public
  2. it strives for excellence
An excellent education, available to the public, has a tremendous impact on its region. I have therefore always
loved that I work at a public university – I want to make a difference in the state and the world! The University of
Michigan gives me an opportunity to do both.
In the past 10 years, excellence in education has become even more important. The U-M of today isn't the U-M of a
decade ago. A decade ago, the university had similar objectives and desires for excellence, but I never felt that
making a local impact was the university's central value.
Meanwhile, the university and the state of Michigan have had to weather a perfect storm that impeded progress. But
those struggles have brought a new way of thinking to the surface – the state's universities had to become a major force in its economic recovery. Everyone in and outside of the university shares Michigan’s deep troubles. So
everyone cares about solutions. We have to!
I actually think that the University of Michigan can grow in stature and influence the state by doing the right
thing – just like Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh; just like the University of North Carolina in its environment; just
like Stanford and Silicon Valley. Global and local approaches aren’t mutually exclusive – they go together!
Right now, Michigan's universities are much better equipped than those of other states to develop the transportation
systems of the next century. But it will require a big plan and commitment from the state, the universities, and the companies. And implementation of the plan has to happen quickly for it to succeed – a gradual and organic transition
is too slow, and we can't afford that.
Leadership for this has to come from the government! Unfortunately, the recent State of the State address left me
disappointed. It sounded a lot like more of the same, instead of a leap forward. But I remain convinced that we’re looking at an unprecedented opportunity for re-invention – not just for the University of Michigan, but for the state it's in.