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If you want to know who your classmates are, here is a quick way to get acquainted. We invite you to learn about the kinds of people who will be your colleagues and friends at Cornell, and often for the rest of your life.

Spotlight on Students: Levon Atoyan

  • Affiliation: MAE

Levon Atoyan

The writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once described his famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes’ method for solving a mystery: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Fourth year Ph.D. student Levon Atoyan does not solve murder mysteries here at Cornell. But he is a firm believer in the process of elimination as a means for getting at the truth. “My mother was in biophysics and my father was an astrophysicist,” says Atoyan. “It was simply a given that I would get a Ph.D., but it was unclear what I would study.” He worked through the possibilities and decided he would start with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from McGill University in Montreal.

Mechanical engineering was not “the truth” for Atoyan, but it was a start. “I liked planes at the time,” says Atoyan, “but McGill didn’t have aerospace engineering as an option. I chose mechanical engineering as the best approximation available.”  During his undergraduate years at McGill, Atoyan knew he was most likely bound for graduate school and a doctorate, but he decided to take an industry internship in strict adherence to his process of elimination.

“I knew there were three possible outcomes,” says Atoyan. “One: I would hate it and close that door for good. Two: it would be okay but nothing special. And three: I would love it and change my plans.” Not only did he use his own internship experience as information, but he also spoke with friends about their internship experiences in order to have a fuller picture. As you can deduce from the fact that Atoyan is now in graduate school working toward his Ph.D., he did not love his industry internship.

When it came time to choose an area of study for graduate school, Atoyan went back to his earlier love of flight. In the first instance, it led him to mechanical engineering. But at the graduate school level, it led him to plasma physics. “Things need power to fly. And the farther you want to fly, the more power you need to have,” says Atoyan as he walks a listener through his reasoning. “And if you want a rocket to fly really far, you need a lot of power and a lot of momentum, and thus a lot of fuel. But if you need a lot of fuel, you need more power to lift all that fuel. Power density and momentum are important and today’s rocket fuel technology won’t cut it. So…plasma physics!” Atoyan figured some sort of as-yet-uninvented plasma engine could power a spaceship as far as it needed to go without having to carry unsupportable quantities of fuel. It is clear that Atoyan is a big thinker.

Now, four years later, Atoyan is a Ph.D. student in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell. He chose between Cornell and the Jacobs School at UC-San Diego. “Both programs are very good, but I chose Cornell because it was closer to home, seemed to offer more opportunities, and has an amazing alumni network,” says Atoyan. It should not surprise you to learn that to arrive at his current research project, he first tried two others and found they were not a good match for his interests. Using the process of elimination, Atoyan now does research relevant to the Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion concept as part of the Laboratory of Plasma Studies at Cornell.

As the end of his doctoral program approaches, Atoyan is at another one of those points in his life where he must choose what comes next. “I am not sure if I want to enter fully into the start-up world or if I want to go into academics,” says Atoyan. “I am a person who regrets only the things I didn’t do, so I will only close a door if I am really sure something is not for me.”

To give himself more information about his choice, Atoyan plans to apply for a Commercialization Fellowship at Cornell Engineering. The fellowship is an innovative program designed to allow Ph.D. students to spend a fully-funded semester and summer in an intensive entrepreneurship program with a personal mentor to explore commercializing a product of the student’s choosing.  Entrepreneurship is not a new interest of Atoyan’s. He joined the Technology Entrepreneurship @ Cornell club in 2013 and has been actively involved ever since. In fact, he is now the club’s president and has been working hard to improve the group’s website and its marketing.

“I have thought about this,” says Atoyan, “and there are four specific things I like about start-ups. I get bored very easily and working at a start-up you do many things and play many roles. I love human interactions and these interactions are an essential part of a start-up. Also, I am comfortable with risk—you could even say I like a certain amount of risk. And lastly, I like the environment at start-ups. People tend to be very upbeat and interesting.” If he is awarded a Commercialization Fellowship, Atoyan will have the chance to see what it might take to commercialize an idea he has been working on. And then, at the end of the Fellowship, he will still be left with the choice between the world of start-ups and the world of academics.

One gets the sense from spending time with Levon Atoyan that his knack for leaving his possibilities as open as he can until he absolutely has to decide will lead him to some exciting places.


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