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Frances Vanek

Returning home, to focus on sustainability

Frances Vanek stands with the solar panel array near his home at EcoVillage just west of IthacaApparently, American novelist Thomas Wolfe was wrong; you definitely can go home again.

At some point in a conversation with most of the people who teach at Cornell, the question arises: “Why did you come to Cornell?” With Francis Vanek ’91, senior lecturer and research associate at Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), the question is slightly different: “Why did you come back to Cornell?” Vanek grew up in Ithaca, graduated from Ithaca High School, and earned undergraduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Asian Studies from Cornell.

“I left Ithaca to get my Ph.D. at Penn,” says Vanek, “and then I taught for three years at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. But my wife and I decided we wanted to come back to Ithaca.” And so they did. That was more than 15 years ago and they have been here ever since.

Vanek has had a major role since then in the Engineering Management Master’s degree offered through CEE. “Starting in about 2003 I was given the job of managing the team project our MEM students tackle each year,” says Vanek from his office in Hollister Hall on a snowy November morning. (MEM is the shorthand used to refer to the M.Eng. students who get their degree in Engineering Management.) The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering also offers an undergraduate minor in Engineering Management. These programs allow Cornell students to bring a management perspective to engineering problems and an engineering perspective to management decisions. At the M.Eng. level, they also prepare students for management positions in technical companies.

There is a strong focus on group project work at Cornell Engineering. An important priority when assigning projects is that they tackle actual problems with actual consequences. It is also essential that students experience all aspects of complex engineering projects and processes, from budget to timelines and from design to implementation. Vanek takes the challenge of finding authentic, engaging projects seriously. “It is not hard to keep things fresh and interesting here,” says Vanek. “At Cornell and in the Ithaca community there are all sorts of challenges that make great MEM team projects.”

Over the years Vanek has advised Engineering Management M.Eng. students on projects including:

·Feasibility of an electricity microgrid to serve downtown Ithaca

·Feasibility study of energy production at Ithaca Area Waste Water Treatment Facility

·Feasibility study of service options for Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) in Ithaca and Tompkins County

·Combining Renewable Energy Options in the Pacific Northwest

·Analysis of Alternative Fuel Vehicles for the Port Authority of NY & N. J

·Ithaca-Area Residential Green Building Feasibility Study

·Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) Feasibility Study

·Wind Energy Feasibility Study: New York State Study (Including Case Study of Black Oak Wind Farm Site in Enfield, NY)

·Feasibility of hydrogen as a transportation fuel 

Many of the projects have a clear emphasis on sustainability. As the years have passed, more of the projects have been focused on Ithaca and the Tompkins County area. “Once we got the word out about the results of our studies, many local groups started to approach me about doing a feasibility study for them as our team project,” says Vanek. “Cornell is already seen as a living laboratory for water and energy sustainability—this is the perfect place for Ithaca and Tompkins County to turn for research and advice on making the entire region a model for sustainability.”

Vanek’s dedication to Ithaca and Tompkins County come naturally, as does his interest in engineering. “Two of my uncles were engineers and I really looked up to them,” says Vanek. “Even in elementary school my goal was to be like them and to study engineering.” Vanek has clear memories of spending time with his good childhood friend Mike Hopcroft (son of longtime Cornell Engineering Computer Science Professor John Hopcroft), disassembling an old abandoned washing machine they found and exploring the old Ithaca Gunworks spillway in an inflatable raft they had lowered down into the tunnel.

As an undergrad at Cornell, Vanek was active in a group called FREE—Forum for Responsibility and Ethics in Engineering. That same impulse toward responsibility and ethics is clear in Vanek’s work at Cornell today. In addition to his work with M.Eng. students tackling issues of sustainability, Vanek has written two well-received textbooks that focus on engineering sustainable transportation and energy systems. Vanek also works as Faculty Advisor for Cornell’s Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) student project team. 

It is easy to see why Vanek came back to Ithaca. He has a challenging job that keeps him learning and allows him to teach future engineers about the importance of factoring sustainability into the design of any product or system they engineer or manage.