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Cornell Engineering 2030 and beyond
What could one of the world’s most prestigious engineering colleges look like a decade from now? Cornell Engineering’s new leader details his vision.
By Syl Kacapyr
The Second Industrial Revolution forever changed the world at the turn of the 20th century, and at the center of it all were the engineers who conceived one technological advance after another. Those advances dramatically changed the way products were manufactured, information was communicated, and people and goods were transported.
At the time, Cornell Engineering was making its own mark on the world. Robert Henry Thurston, a renowned inventor and educator who became director of what was then the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanic Arts in 1885, transformed engineering from a shop-based, practical profession into one based on scientific design and academic training. It was this educational vision that put Cornell’s engineering program on the map and enabled its faculty and students to have greater impact on the world.
“We built this fantastic institution at a time when it was needed,” said Lynden Archer, who became the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering earlier this year, “and we are arguably at exactly that same sort of turning point again, a Fourth Industrial Revolution, when data, information science, machine learning and bioengineering are bringing technology into every aspect of life.”
A century and a half after Cornell Engineering’s founding, the college finds itself immersed in developing the people, programs and innovations that will drive this latest revolution, and with an opportunity to again play a leadership role in solving society’s grand challenges.
“Access to massive amounts of data and the tools to use such data are what’s going to define our age. We are then obliged to think about the role of Cornell Engineering in influencing the direction and pace of change,” said Archer, who described the opportunity as a call to service for all faculty, students, alumni and staff to reimagine the college and how it will have a lasting impact on the decades to come.
“It is clear that to get from here to there, Cornell Engineering will need to excel in what it is already good at—knowledge creation and dissemination— and must also quickly develop mastery of new domains—translating research discoveries into commercial practice, expanding opportunity, and developing people to reach their greatest potential,” Archer said.
“How do we build a comparable infrastructure of buildings and people and pedagogies that allow us to continue the outstanding tradition of leadership defined by our predecessors?” asked Archer, who plans to spend his first year in office working with others to formulate a new strategic vision for the college. This vision will be built around four main pillars: strength in research, teaching excellence, research translation, and a renewed focus on collaboration, particularly between the college and Cornell’s two New York City campuses.
Integrated within each pillar is a focus on leveraging the college’s success in recruiting populations traditionally underrepresented in engineering—particularly women, minorities and first-generation students—to develop a climate of true belonging in which students are able to thrive.
“This is our time,” said Archer, “to add enduring values to this college that we all love.”
Strength in research
Archer joined the Cornell faculty in 2000 and established a research group broadly considered a leader in the materials physics of organic polymers and their composites with inorganic nanomaterials. Inspired by a call from the National Science Foundation for functional nanomaterials, he discovered a novel type of nanoscale organic hybrid material that combines the best of its organic polymer and inorganic particle components to enable access to low-cost, but high-energy batteries that use metals as anodes.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Archer has the distinction of being named four times to the “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds” list compiled by Thompson Reuters, and in 2019 he was named one of the most influential researchers of the decade by Web of Science.
But just because Archer is a decorated researcher, doesn’t mean he wants to tell others how they should be running their laboratories, in fact, quite the opposite. As Cornell Engineering’s schools and departments think about how they will position themselves for leadership in their fields, Archer is taking a decidedly bottom-up approach to planning strategy. It begins by challenging departments to define what constitutes excellence in research, teaching and technology translation in their specific domains, and then by asking what investments are required to achieve such excellence.
“One of the only rigorously philosophical aspects to my leadership style stems from a deep belief that to lead is to serve, and the people I serve are the departments and students they educate,” said Archer, “and so this entire exercise of strategic planning is about me learning and formulating a strategy that is rooted in the aspirations of the departments and completely guided by their priorities.”
Part of that strategy will be to invest in the college’s infrastructure by modernizing its buildings and laboratories. The recent reconstruction of Upson Hall, along with renovations to Kimball, Olin and Weill halls, serve as a model for future projects.
Another key element involves investments in faculty—to recognize, nurture and reward excellence in research, and to strategically hire new faculty who can bridge engineering disciplines by uniting researchers across the college, campus and university.
“The idea is to recruit superstars—people who are vetted not just for their ability to be intellectual leaders, but who can bring other faculty together in areas where Cornell Engineering has emergent technical strength, to win large multi-investigator grant proposals that will accelerate our rise to national prominence in these areas,” said Archer.
A recent example of how success in recruiting talented researchers can lead to new opportunities is that set by the recruitment of Debdeep Jena and Huili Grace Xing in 2015 from the University of Notre Dame. As professors in both the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the two researchers were attracted to Cornell because of Duffield Hall’s world-class infrastructure for nanoscience research and by the university’s deep tradition of collaborative research.
As established researchers with leadership skills, Jena and Xing have been key members of PARADIM—a $25 million National Science Foundation research platform—and founders of the Air Force Research Laboratory Cornell Center for Epitaxial Solutions—a $3 million center uniting researchers who aim to discover the atomic secrets of beta-gallium oxide, a promising new material that has piqued the interest of engineers for its potential to allow electronic devices to handle dramatically more power.
“Once we recruit outstanding faculty to the college and give them the recourses they need, they not only allow us to rapidly add strength in priority areas, but also help define the culture of excellence required to sustain such strength,” said Archer. “The hope is that more junior faculty and perhaps even the senior faculty colleagues participating in their successes will then be inspired to excellence, lifting us all.”
Archer also hopes star faculty can champion Cornell’s campus as a ‘living laboratory,’ where buildings, utilities, and transit systems serve as a platform for translating research into demonstrated technologies with real-world impact.
Examples include the Lake Source Cooling system that transports water from the depths of nearby Cayuga Lake to sustainably cool all buildings on campus, and more recently, the Earth Source Heat project led by Jefferson Tester, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineer and David Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow. The project proposes heating most buildings on campus using a novel, deep-geothermal system.
Another example is the ongoing work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, modeled by Peter Frazier, associate professor of operations research and information engineering. The approach has been a hallmark of Cornell’s plan to keep campus operational and can be applied elsewhere to scale up testing efforts.
Much of Archer’s passion for science and education stems from his experience growing up in the South American nation of Guyana. His interest in materials science derives from one of the country’s largest exports at the time—an ore used to make aluminum—and some of his first experiments were conducted at a young age when a tip from a chemistry book led him to improve his mother’s livestock using brewer’s yeast as a feed supplement.
But it was Archer’s experience as an 18-year-old high-school teacher in Guyana that greatly influenced his philosophy on the importance of teaching.
“I’m still in touch with some of the students I taught and an enduring lesson is that if you go beyond the call of duty and do something that is selfless, it uplifts students in a way that you could never imagine,” said Archer. “It is remarkable what stories my students tell about their 18-year-old teacher, even 30 years later.”
Archer said it’s Cornell’s reputation for combined excellence in research and teaching that first attracted him to the Ivy League university, and it’s a value he has carried with him during his 20-year career at Cornell, in which he has mentored more than 40 Ph.D., 20 masters, and 2,000 undergraduate students.
“I think that is an important legacy that we’ve got to preserve and strengthen,” said Archer, who added that one way to do this is through endowed faculty positions specifically focused on teaching. He points out that among the nearly 200 full-time faculty in Cornell Engineering, only three such positions exist, and only one recognizes a member of the faculty—Michael Duncan, the Raymond G. Thorpe Teaching Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Archer hopes to expand teaching-focused appointments to one or two per department over the next decade, although he is still examining how the initiative could be structured for maximum impact.
“The intention is to create a cohort of faculty who excel as teachers, who bring creativity to developing content and defining teaching spaces that facilitate learning, and who are committed to mentoring faculty to make us more effective teachers,” said Archer.
Archer points to the work of Kathy Dimiduk, director of the James McCormick Family Teaching Excellence Institute, who collaborates with faculty in developing new teaching methods, improving course design, and modernizing teaching spaces for improving student learning.
“The institute and Kathy are good examples of the long-term impacts even small investments can have in improving the quality of the education we provide,” said Archer, who also points to the work of the Engineering Leadership Program to illustrate the influence creativity in engineering education can have.
The expectations of engineers have grown considerably over the past few decades, and many are now expected to start or manage a company, among other leadership functions. The Engineering Leadership Program—run by Erica Dawson, the Nancy and Bob Selander Director and professor of practice—helps prepare students for this future through classes, seminars, and a leadership certificate program, all of which teach professional skills such as working in diverse teams, communication, decision making, managing conflict, ethics, networking and organizational culture, among other topics.
“As former director of the Smith School, I had opportunities to meet alumni at a range of career points. This provided a useful distillation of thought about what is most valuable in terms of what we teach,” said Archer. “It is remarkable how often the ‘I wish I learned this or that while at Cornell’ intersect with the sorts of instruction the Engineering Leadership Program provides.”
Archer aims to expand the leadership program so that it’s deeply integrated into the experience of all Cornell Engineering students. He also hopes to expand Diversity Programs in Engineering, which facilitates the development of faculty and students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in engineering.
“With the college’s most recent class at 51% women and 24% underrepresented minorities, one has to begin to ask, how do we begin to transform the college so that these students are able to thrive at Cornell and beyond?” said Archer.
One Cornell Engineering
At the dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution, when Cornell’s founder, Ezra Cornell, famously proclaimed his vision for the university as a place for “…any person…any study,” he articulated what was a radical idea at the time—a university with few academic boundaries, in which faculty and students would have the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests.
More the 150 years later, that founding principle has endured.
“Exciting advances in science and engineering always appear to happen at the intersection of fields,” said Archer, who added that Cornell Engineering must build upon the success of the university’s Radical Collaboration initiative—which aims to foster collaboration between colleges—and the One Cornell campaign—which aims to strengthen ties between Cornell’s various campuses. Archer is particularly focused on identifying opportunities that will leverage the strengths of Cornell Engineering with Cornell Tech and Weill Cornell Medicine, both of which are based in New York City.
Archer argues that the division between Cornell Engineering in Ithaca and its presence in New York City remains too visible to the outside world. He views a push to strengthen those ties as a way to spark creative, interdisciplinary research, and to enhance recruiting efforts. As many researchers will profess, Cornell’s interdisciplinary nature is what attracted them to the university, Archer included.
“I moved to Cornell because I saw an emerging knowledge gap in the electrochemistry field that required access to world-class collaborators interested in polymer physics, materials engineering and fluid dynamics,” said Archer. “I’ve benefitted immensely from this culture of collaboration developed by my predecessors.”
In recent years, Cornell engineers have had success building multidisciplinary centers with Weill Cornell Medicine. In 2015, Uli Wiesner, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, stressed collaboration as key to the successful launch of the MSKCC-Cornell Center for Translation of Cancer Nanomedicines—a $10 million center he co-directs with Michelle Bradbury, director of intraoperative imaging at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and associate professor of radiology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
And in 2016, researchers from the College of Engineering and Weill Cornell Medicine announced the Center on the Physics of Cancer Metabolism—led by Claudia Fischbach, the Stanley Bryer 1946 Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Dr. Lewis Cantley, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.
And while Archer sees more opportunity for Ithaca-Weill partnerships, he describes Cornell Engineering’s relationship with Cornell Tech, which officially opened its Roosevelt Island campus in 2017, as full of largely unrealized promise. While Cornell Engineering does have two non-computer-science master’s degree programs based on the tech campus, Archer points to Cornell Tech’s Urban Tech Hub as a prime example of untapped potential for impactful collaboration.
The Urban Tech Hub is Cornell Tech’s academic umbrella for the emerging study of how to make cities and urban spaces livable and efficient, encompassing civil engineering, electrical and computational engineering, sustainability, transportation, policy and the social sciences, among other areas of study.
“Recruitment of good faculty and graduate students is essential for activating these partnerships,” said Archer, “and if we're able to develop programming that leads to deep engagement between the two campuses, I predict that when one thinks of Cornell Engineering, opportunities in New York City won’t be an afterthought. We’ll have departments that are closely connected with Cornell Tech and Weill Cornell Medicine in meaningful ways.”
Uniting researchers and programs across schools and campuses is just one way Archer said he will monitor progress towards his goal of expanding Cornell Engineering’s influence during his tenure as dean. In the end, “my success is really about the success of the people who I serve,” said Archer, who explained this means developing a collective vision for the college that amounts to more than just building upon existing achievements.
“We’re dreaming together and making a plan from the bottom up to play our part in the emergent Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Archer. “That is the part I’m most excited about.”