Lewis College Welcomes Three New Chairs



By Tom Linder
Lewis College of Science and Letters new department chairs: Lei Li, Pavel Snopok, and Saran Ghatak.

Lewis College of Science and Letters at Illinois Institute of Technology welcomed three new department chairs to their faculty at the beginning of the 2023–24 academic year.

With a wide range of backgrounds, all three—Lei Li in biology, Pavel Snopok in physics, and Saran Ghatak in social sciences—bring with them goals to build new programs, strengthen research, and grow both their undergraduate and graduate student bodies.

Lei Li, Biology

After stints at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Notre Dame, Li most recently served as the chair of University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Department of Biology before arriving at Illinois Tech at the start of the fall 2023 semester.

Li was drawn to the field of neuroscience because of the unknowns that come along with treating neurological diseases.

“What’s most interesting to me is over the years—particularly the past 45 years the United States has spent billions of dollars studying tumors and infectious disease—a lot of things we know already and have very good treatment to cure the disease,” says Li. “But for neurological disease—Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, retinal degeneration, paralyzed people due to physical injury—none of them can be cured. You can only slow down the progress of the problem, but you cannot reverse it.”

As a neuroscientist, Li hopes to expand the reach of Illinois Tech’s biology department in his field by collaborating with a number of new areas.

“There’s a lot of interest in the area,” Li says of neuroscience. “There’s a lot of potential for biology and neuroscience to collaborate, such as in the psychology department, for example, to study human brain function. That’s my goal: to develop research and undergraduate and graduate programs to study neuroscience.”

Li earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology from Shandong University before completing his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Georgia State University. He did his postdoctoral research at Harvard University, where he focused on neural degeneration.

Pavel Snopok, Physics

Snopok jests that his career in applied physics all started as a joke: his adviser at St. Petersburg State University in his native Russia made the quip as Snopok was trying to get accepted into a computer science program in neighboring Finland.

“He said, ‘You don’t need to go because they’re just harvesting your brains; they’re not going to teach you anything. If you want to, we’ll send you to a real graduate program in the U.S.,’” says Snopok. “Back in the day, I was thinking it was just an old, wise professor joking around. Let’s see how far the joke went.”

Next thing he knew, Snopok was attending Michigan State University in a joint lab Ph.D. program with Fermilab. He earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State in physics and mathematics in 2007, followed by postdoctoral research at University of California, Riverside. There, he worked on muon collider design in a program that was also hosted by Fermilab before joining Illinois Tech in 2011 as a tenure-track assistant professor. The Muon Accelerator Program continued through 2016, and now there is a renewed interest in muon colliders and neutrino factories in the community.

Snopok’s research continues in a partnership with Fermilab, and it deals primarily with neutrinos and particle accelerators. He is currently contributing to Fermilab’s NOvA experiment, which aims to find the role neutrinos played in the evolution of the cosmos.

The applied nature of physics is what led Snopok to learn to love the discipline.

“That’s the biggest thing: physics deals with everything that you can verify experimentally,” says Snopok. “If you have a theory, you have to come up with an experiment concept that will prove or disprove it. Then, you can demonstrate that certain things work as we think they do.”

Saran Ghatak, Social Sciences

After graduating with his Ph.D. from New York University, Ghatak took a job as an assistant professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming chair of the sociology department. Missing city life, he jumped at the opportunity when he learned of Illinois Tech’s opening for a chair of the Department of Social Sciences.

Ghatak’s primary areas of expertise are in criminology and in understanding how governments function, with a particular interest in the history of how each have been developed over time.

“You can say a historical sociologist recognized an area of analysis in sociology,” says Ghatak. “The focus is on the past, but unlike historians—who are focused more on facts and exactly what happened there—in sociology and historical sociology, the focus is more on looking at trends to be able to make comparisons.”

While Ghatak’s ultimate goal at Illinois Tech is to develop new programs, with one currently being initiated in public policy, he’s excited about being able to reach a wider range of students at a tech-focused university where the social sciences may not be their choice of study.