Meet the Team

Executive Director, Interdisciplinary Initiatives

Irfan Ahmad provides strategic leadership and support in the ideation, development, and execution of large multidisciplinary multi-institution proposals (such as IUCRC, STC, ERC, NRT), initiatives, and projects in The Grainger College of Engineering. His experience spans multiple federal and international research and innovation funding agencies including the NSF, NIH, DOD, DOE, USAID, USDA, industry consortiums, and foundations.  He is resident research faculty at the Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Lab, and also is affiliated with the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, ACES; and Biomedical and Translational Sciences, CIMED. He is Co-PI and Innovation Director for the NSF Industry University Cooperative Research Center- the Center for Advanced Research in Draying (CARD), and others. Irfan also works as an engineering college representative with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine to promote engineering based health innovation.

Associate Director for Corporate Relations

Melissa Belcher develops strategic relationships between The Grainger College of Engineering and corporate partners.  A proud UIUC alumna, she also holds a Master’s Degree in Strategic Marketing Communications from the University of Greenwich.  Melissa worked internationally for 15 years building collaborative partnerships within the financial service sector and feels incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to connect industry with our exceptional faculty and students.    

Executive Director of Research Data Analytics

George Chacko is the Executive Director of Research Analytics at The Grainger College of Engineering. He harvests, curates, and analyzes research metadata and administrative records to support research assessment and evaluation activities. Prior to joining the University of Illinois, he worked in industry and in the federal government. 

Office Administrator

Christy Gosser-Stiner provides administrative support to the Associate Dean for Research and several senior executives in the ADR office at The Grainger College of Engineering. With over 35 years of administrative support, Christy has a proven track record of senior-level executive support and management.  She has a strong ability to streamline processes, maximize efficiency, and foster professional relationships within the college. Christy’s philosophy centers around what role she can play in helping others find solutions and her commitment to excellence in service.

Assistant Director for Research Development

Kara Haley contributes to the Illinois research enterprise across all departments and institutes in The Grainger College of Engineering and has worked in research administration at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign since 2015. She supports faculty teams in developing compelling large-scale multidisciplinary proposals, strategizes and disseminates funding opportunities, assists with research-related events in the College, and helps manage activities for newly funded centers and institutes.

Associate Dean for Research

Harley T. Johnson is the Associate Dean for Research, and a Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering.  He oversees the research enterprise in The Grainger College of Engineering, including development of research partnerships, programs for faculty research development, and corporate research engagement.  He joined the faculty at Illinois in 2001.  His research is in the area of mechanics of electronic materials.  He is PI and Director of the NSF-supported “DIGI-MAT” NRT program in Materials and Data Science.

Assistant Director for Research Development

Heidi Leerkamp contributes to the research enterprise across all departments and institutes in The Grainger College of Engineering by supporting faculty  teams developing compelling large-scale multidisciplinary proposals, strategizing and disseminating funding opportunities, supporting newly funded centers and institutes, and as an ex officio member of  the College of Engineering External Awards Committee, managing award nomination and application processes. Heidi has worked in various positions in support of research activities on campus for over 20 years. 

Assistant Dean for Research

Laurel Passantino works to grow the research enterprise across all departments and institutes in The Grainger College of Engineering. Specifically, she assists faculty by helping cultivate relationships with Federal and industry sponsors, encouraging cross-campus collaborations, developing compelling narratives for research proposals, and forming new centers and institutes. Since 2013, Laurel has worked in the academic research environment to identify, pursue, and secure large-scale interdisciplinary grants, and she has an additional 10 years of experience as a practicing civil engineer.

Senior Director of Corporate Relations

Kent Studer is the Senior Director of Corporate Relations in The Grainger College of Engineering. Kent is responsible for developing and nurturing strategic corporate relationships in the College of Engineering, focusing on increasing the quality, depth, and funding level of corporate research and philanthropic partnerships. Prior to joining Illinois, Kent was the Senior Director of Development for the College of Engineering at the University of Florida, serving as the lead for the development team. Previously, Kent was the Executive Director for Corporate Relations at Iowa State University, Associate Vice President for Corporate Relations at the University of Alabama Huntsville, and spent 8 years in in the Office of Advancement in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois focusing on building comprehensive relationships with both alumni and corporations. Prior to academia Kent worked in the sales and marketing industry. He has served as a board member for the Network of Academic Corporate Relations Officers and the Engineering Development Forum.

Director for Research

Don Takehara assists faculty and researchers in obtaining funding for research all the way from ideation to submitted proposal as well as stewarding of funded projects for future funding. As a certified coach, Don also focuses his time on faculty development through assisting faculty in both career and leadership development. Don has a PhD in Chemical Engineering (catalysis and reaction engineering) and his prior work includes 17 years at Dow Chemical doing chemical process and product R&D along with 9 years at Taylor University as the Director of the Center for Research & Innovation. Don also served as a teaching professor and researcher during this time at Taylor University.