Letter from Dean Mary C. Boyce

The Class of 2020 gathered together for the first time this fall at Academic Assembly. One of our Columbia Engineering alums, Ky Harlin BS’08, spoke of his journey at Columbia and since graduation—about his career and his first position, which was in the then-unknown field of data science. He remarked that data science as a career didn’t even exist when he majored in applied mathematics and minored in philosophy at Columbia Engineering, just ten years ago. Yet this foundational education prepared him for an emerging career path.

It was a timely reminder that we are preparing our students to contribute their creativity and ingenuity to a world that is rapidly evolving, one that will be vastly different from what it is today. In this issue of Columbia Engineering, we focus on that future, with a closer look at some of our faculty’s work in robotics, imaging and sensing, cybersecurity, and molecular engineering—all areas where exciting and rapid progress is being made, both on fundamental and applied research.

Sunil Agrawal has made great strides in his pioneering efforts in robotics, bringing new rehabilitative approaches to children with gaits impaired by cerebral palsy, while Matei Ciocarlie is advancing the dexterity of robots and a better understanding of how artificial mechanisms can interact as skillfully as biological organisms. Peter Allen is exploring how to build complex human behavior, such as emotions and intent, into robots, while Hod Lipson is striving to create technology that is self-aware and conscious—what he calls, “the ultimate challenge.”

Andrew Laine has been on the leading edge of imaging since his early work that pioneered digital mammography systems worldwide. Today he is applying his imaging techniques to pulmonary emphysema. Christine Hendon is developing optical tools so that in the future an optical biopsy of the heart, for example, will replace more invasive versions and provide surgeons with real-time data as they operate.

Keeping ahead of cyberattacks is the future-oriented research that Simha Sethumadhavan and Junfeng Yang have undertaken. Yang seeks to automate the detection of software bugs, while Sethumadhavan focuses on mitigating risk in hardware, in part by quashing malicious code that enters through “backdoors.”

Yaniv Erlich and Tal Danino are working on molecular engineering research that holds great promise in medical and nonmedical areas. Erlich is harnessing crowdsourced DNA databases to probe the genetic basis of disease. Danino is programming the DNA in bacteria to make diagnostic and therapeutic molecules to attack cancer from inside the tumor. He also ventures into bio-art, collaborating with artist Vik Muniz, who uses actual bacteria to “paint” the images, including the one shown on our magazine cover.

As important as making discoveries is bringing these discoveries to real-world challenges. Read about the programs we have put in place to foster entrepreneurship and support startups, and meet Sidney Perkins, a student whose work with Engineers Without Borders took him to Uganda last summer for field research with Neopenda, a startup that our recent graduates are building to bring monitoring of infant vital signs to low-resource areas.

I invite you to visit the future in the pages of this issue, and to see the many ways our faculty, students, and researchers are working on it.

Mary Cunningham Boyce
Dean of Engineering
Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor