Lay Nam Chang, the founding dean of the Virginia Tech College of Science, a professor and former department chair of physics, has died. He was 77.

Chang was dean of the College of Science from 2003 to 2016. Prior to that, he was the last dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, serving from 2002 to 2003 when he guided the academic restructuring that resulted in two new colleges — the College of Science and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Under Chang’s leadership, the College of Science emphasized the inherent unity in the scientific fields. In this spirit, the college launched several new initiatives, including educational pathways and degree programs that are intrinsically cross-disciplinary – including the Academy of Integrated Science and the School of Neuroscience, both fostering undergraduate programs that have become popular among students.

“As founding dean of the College of Science, Dr. Chang led in the creation of foundational strengths that continue to distinguish Virginia Tech,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “His insights into transdisciplinary approaches to research, education and outreach were ahead of his time, and led to the Academy of Integrated Sciences, which supports some of the fastest growing degree programs at Virginia Tech and in the commonwealth, including unique undergraduate programs in Computational Modeling and Data Analytics, Systems Biology, and Nanoscience. Virginia Tech will build on the contributions of Lay Nam Chang for generations to come.”

Sally C. Morton, who succeeded Chang as dean of the College of Science, said that Chang saw the value of collaboration and eliminating the silos sometimes associated with scientific research.

“Dr. Chang’s philosophy was the catalyst that set into motion the collaborative approach to science that now helps set Virginia Tech apart from its peers,” Morton said. “In his wisdom, he saw that the world’s most difficult problems did not contain themselves to neat boundaries, and he understood that solutions to those issues would only be discovered at the convergence of multiple disciplines. He was a pillar of the College of Science, and we will miss him greatly.”

Lay Name Chang speaking at the podium at a college awards ceremony in 2017. He is wearing a dark suit and yellow dress shirt.

Lay Name Chang speaking at the podium at a college awards ceremony in 2017. He is wearing a dark suit and yellow dress shirt.
Lay Nam Chang speaking at the podium at a college awards ceremony in 2015.

Based on Chang’s vision, the Academy of Integrated Science debuted in 2014 and flourished from the start, and a few years later Popular Mechanics magazine called it “the future of science classrooms.” Among the academy’s cross-disciplinary programs are the Integrated Science Curriculum (ISC) — launched in 2011 — for beginning science students. Other students major in computational modeling and data analytics, nanomedicine, nanoscience, systems biology, or a minor that focuses on science, technology, and the law. Approximately 750 students are majoring in the academy, with 85 minors, and 135 students in ISC, said Michel Pleimling, director of the academy and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Science.

“The Academy of Integrated Science, which provided Virginia Tech with a new model for interdisciplinary education, was tasked with developing new, cutting-edge science-based degree programs, curricula, and minors,” said Pleimling. “Under Dean Chang’s leadership new undergraduate degree programs, in computational modeling and data analytics, nanoscience, and systems biology, were created. These new degree programs have been hugely successful and continue to attract new student populations to Virginia Tech.”

The School of Neuroscience, in the College of Science, is another innovative endeavor initiated under Chang’s leadership. Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech and executive director of Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, worked with Chang on several initiatives, including conceptualizing the School of Neuroscience.

“Lay Nam always envisioned what was possible, went beyond boundaries, and deployed inclusivity in ways that not only celebrated equity but made for better science and innovation. He was the quintessential academic visionary,” Friedlander said. "On top of that, he had a sharp, mischievous, and provocative sense of humor that added to his warmth and endearing qualities. He was truly a scholar and a gentleman. I am proud to have been his colleague and honored to have had the opportunity to have worked with him.  He will be missed at Virginia Tech.”

Opened in 2016, the School of Neuroscience now has 800 students enrolled and this year announced a new state-approved graduate program.

“I got to know Lay Nam Chang, on my first visit to Virginia Tech. Over dinner, he shared his vision for the future of science and the role of the School of Neuroscience,” said Harald Sontheimer, founding director of the School of Neuroscience and director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “I can honestly say that I have rarely met a man with such infectious enthusiasm for science. Lay Nam won me over to join Virginia Tech before dinner was over.”

Paul Knox, founding dean of Virginia Tech Honors College, said he first met Chang when Chang had been appointed dean of the College of Science and Knox was dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

“Lay Nam was a great colleague, a passionate advocate of science and an astute observer of institutional change, always presented with grace, dignity—and dry humor,” Knox said.

Chang also worked closely with the college’s Roundtable Advisory Board, consisting of alumni and friends. Under his leadership, the college successfully completed its first comprehensive campaign and raised more than $80 million in philanthropic support.

“Lay Nam was a thoughtful, visionary and engaging leader of the College of Science,” said Pat Caldwell,  a fourth-generation Hokie who serves on the college’s advisory board. “His courage and willingness to embrace what was often painful change led to new programs such as The Academy of Integrated Science and the School of Neuroscience that are counted among the University’s most successful. He took VT to a new level.”

Upon his departure in 2016, the Roundtable established the Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair in the College of Science. Morton, the current dean of the College of Science, has used these funds annually to support faculty research and educational projects.

Chang’s love of all things science was central to his life. His long-time license plate read “CIENCIA,” the Spanish translation for “science.” During a 2016 celebration of his career, Chang told those gathered to honor him: “To my mind, [the] arts and sciences represent the inherent duality in human creativity.”

Chang earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1964 and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967. He has conducted research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago and has been a visiting scientist or visiting instructor at institutions of higher education and research in Denmark, British Columbia, Singapore and the United States, including at Stanford and FermiLab.  He joined the Virginia Tech Department of Physics faculty in 1978 following seven years on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. In 1995, he became chair of the department and served in that position until 2002 when he was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Chang served on review panels for the National Science Foundation, was a reviewer for the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy, and served as consultant to physics programs at the National University of Singapore. He was also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Chang is survived by his wife of 53 years, Jeannie; and daughter Ch’iu Lien Chang.

A service to commemorate his life will be held at a future date. Condolences may be shared online at Remembering Dr. Lay Nam Chang.

For those who would like to honor the memory of Lay Nam Chang, in lieu of flowers, the Chang family suggests making a memorial contribution to the Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

Related stories