Reconnections, Reflections, and Next-Gen Innovations

Alumni convene for reunion 2019

Jun 13 2019 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Seven decades of Columbia engineers returned to alma mater for this year’s reunion, a busy weekend of fellowship, memories, and deep dives into the groundbreaking innovations and research on today’s campus.

Alumni Weekend 2019 kicked off May 30 with a dinner in Low Library hosted by Dean Mary C. Boyce and the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association honoring a pair of distinguished Columbians. Nobel Prize-winning economist and operations researcher Alvin Roth ’71, a professor at Stanford and professor emeritus at Harvard, received the Samuel Johnson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in a Field Other Than Engineering for his pioneering work on “matching markets” research expanding traditional marketplace models.

“I actually came to Columbia before I matriculated in 1968 as part of a science honors program for high school seniors, and that was a big deal to me,” said Roth. “It’s good to be back.”

A professor at MIT and authority in applying properties of metal oxides for sensors and energy conversion, Harry Tuller ’66 MS’67 EngScD’73 was awarded the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement in recognition of his renowned career spanning academia and industry.

“I feel very fortunate having had the opportunity to attend the unique engineering program at Columbia University,” Tuller said. “Where else are you required to take courses in English, the humanities, and contemporary civilization, [giving you] unique opportunities to view and understand the world from more perspectives?”

Over the next two days, alums enjoyed class-specific and departmental gatherings, tours of Columbia’s evolving campus, and an array of faculty lectures on topics from Beethoven to climate change. On Saturday morning, biomedical engineering professors Elizabeth Hillman and Sam Sia addressed how breakthroughs in imaging and miniaturization are transforming medicine. Hillman, also a professor of radiology, explained her work deploying super-fast 3D microscopy to one day achieve real-time 3D imaging of the human brain, while Sia, faculty co-director of SEAS Entrepreneurship, surveyed how tiny “labs-on-a-chip” use microfluidics to perform very inexpensive point-of-care tests and diagnoses.

“Instead of having to send blood away to the lab, we can get a finger prick of blood, get a measurement done, and have a discussion in the same visit right there,” Sia said. “Using a smartphone for communication as a user interface, we can shrink it down even more.”

Later, mechanical engineer and data scientist Hod Lipson walked listeners through the rapidly accelerating proliferation of artificial intelligence and smart robots that use predictive analytics to learn about themselves and the world rather than relying on specific rules programmed by humans.

“We are today at this transition point where AI and robotics that have been largely a disappointment in the last several decades are beginning to accelerate and exceed our expectations,” Lipson said.

On Saturday, Professor Alan West, chair of the chemical engineering department and co-director of the new Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center, discussed how achieving solar and wind power on a mass scale will require bigger and better batteries to store energy over time.

“If you want to do renewables on the electrical grid the problem is that the sun doesn’t always shine and it’s not always windy, so you have to solve this intermittency problem through energy storage,” West said.

The greatest testament to [our] vision is the work of our faculty, students, and alumni.

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Columbia Engineering

After delivering her annual State of the School address, Dean Boyce also moderated a panel discussion on how engineers are reshaping modern life with three leading women faculty as part of the New York City Women in Technology’s (NYC WIT) and the Columbia Alumni Association’s She Opened the Door initiative.

University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic detailed her team’s many projects at the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, from regenerating damaged body parts to building “organs-on-a-chip” platforms for precision medicine. Jeannette Wing, Avanessians Director of the Data Science Institute and a professor of computer science, talked about her ever more interdisciplinary work enhancing security, privacy, and fairness in a world run increasingly by algorithms. Robert A.W. and Christine S. Carleton Professor of Civil Engineering Patricia Culligan shared an overview of her work building more sustainable cities with flexible and decentralized infrastructure.

“Engineering is transforming entire fields and sectors as many industries have become, or are in the process of becoming, engineering or technology-driven,” Boyce said. “We have a vision for how Columbia Engineering can play a pivotal role in this time of rapid change…The greatest testament to this vision is the work of our faculty, students, and alumni.”