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Q&A: Mohamed Ali, Ph.D. '97, GE Aviation
This feature appears in the winter 2022 edition of Cornell Engineering Magazine.
Two-thirds of all commercial aviation flights are powered by engines for which Mohamed Ali, Ph.D. ’97, is responsible.
After earning his doctoral degree in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell, Ali joined GE as a research scientist and found a lifelong professional home. Now the vice president and general manager of engineering for GE Aviation, he leads the design, development, certification, and fleet services of GE Aviation’s commercial engines. Ali’s team – a total of about 5,000 engineers located throughout the world — is also responsible for looking forward and inventing the future of flight with a focus on safety and sustainability.
Ali is married with three children and lives in Mason, Ohio. He also is a member of the board of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, working to advance the organization’s mission to promote diversity and inclusion in engineering and science disciplines.
Can you tell us about your journey to this point in your career?
I was born and raised in Egypt. My father left when I was two, and my mother raised me. In Egypt, being a single mother was rare and carried societal judgment. My mother was always very supportive of me and prioritized excellence in education, which provided a backbone to thrive and succeed. I moved to the United States to attend Cornell University, and I have been fortunate to have a career in a field I am passionate about — aviation.
At GE, I’ve been coached and supported by many mentors. One piece of advice I received that resonated was that, in order to be successful, I needed to demonstrate confidence and a level of seriousness in myself. I couldn’t rely on people noticing my work, which was my belief growing up. To grow and succeed, I needed to be able to connect with my colleagues. I needed to build a network of people who would be able to learn who I was on a human level. People follow people to grow and succeed. In the end, our talents are what make us — and our companies — world class. And talents produce products.
What makes you proud to be a Cornell alumnus?
Arriving in the United States and finding an amazing mix of students from different nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds, I never felt like a minority at Cornell. I was surrounded by diversity and supported in an environment where I could excel.
I have fond memories of the faculty, including Richard White in civil engineering, Subrata Mukherjee in theoretical and applied mechanics, and Steven Strogatz in applied math and computer science. They all opened my aperture, and I realized the diversity and depth of many fields. I loved the beauty of how simple mathematical formulae govern mechanics. I loved how this can be translated into applied mathematics and computer programs. I started connecting more with science and physics at large. And I was extremely fortunate that those professors guided me to discover those depths and breadths.
Cornell was one of the best places in the world to have the mindset of a lifelong learner. I remember being told that it was very hard to do well in certain classes. I simply took such comments from some of my peers as invitations to excel, and I think I did.
Cornell also encouraged my passion for community service. While a student, I volunteered at a school in Lansing, New York, spending hours talking about STEM and the career possibilities. I didn’t have a car, so I took a taxi for each visit. On my student stipend, that was expensive. But I was so energized by the promise of influencing future engineers and scientists.
After Cornell, going to GE was a natural fit. GE has a culture of meritocracy that we cherish and value, as well as an emphasis on diversity of thought that we are proud to promote.
What is the business case for diversity?
A workforce representative of the population is good for business, but what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity, and creates an environment where all voices are heard. People who come to work as their full selves have more confidence to raise breakthrough ideas, drive their own careers, and bring others along. When people focus energy on the work — as opposed to wasting time and energy pretending to be something they’re not — businesses and organizations thrive.
In the U.S., our diversity is a unique advantage. I do a lot of work with the Society for Asian Scientists and Engineers to lift up others in my community.
In your current position, what do you see as the most pressing problems faced by the next generation of engineers?
Sustainability will be a primary focus for all engineers around the globe for decades to come.
The challenges facing the world today are ripe for innovative problem solvers. When engineers come together for a common purpose, it is magical. I have found this to be especially true for aerospace engineers and our team at GE Aviation. If we can harness the power of a diverse group of engineers, we can change the world.
Recently, GE committed to a 10-year, $100 million investment in a program called Next Engineers, which is a college-readiness program focused on increasing the diversity of young people in the engineering field. In some ways, it’s an incredible continuation of the work I began at the school in Lansing.
Can you talk about the future of sustainable aviation and the role you intend to play in it?
At GE Aviation, we have thousands of engineers who wake up every day thinking about how to invent the future of flight. We know that the aviation industry is at a pivotal moment. We must reduce carbon emissions to earn the right to grow.
GE and our partner in France, Safran, have had joint engineering teams working together since 2019 to mature and demonstrate open fan, hybrid electric, advanced materials, compact core and other technologies that will help redefine commercial aviation again. We see a future with a more than 20% reduction in fuel consumption for the next single-aisle aircraft engine application by the mid-2030s, compared to today’s most fuel-efficient engines. It will also be sustainable aviation fuel ready and hydrogen capable. This is all in a program that we announced earlier this year called RISE, which stands for “Revolutionary Innovations for Sustainable Engines” to accelerate innovations and meet the sustainability goals we as an industry set for ourselves.
This is our North Star — and our responsibility to this planet and our children.