Meet Columbia Engineering’s Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Apr 24 2017 | By Jesse Adams

This year’s top academic honors are going to seniors Noah Jacob Zweben and Ke (Lisa) Lei, Columbia Engineering's Class of 2017 valedictorian and salutatorian. As valedictorian, Zweben will be awarded the School’s Illig Medal and is set to speak at Engineering Class Day on May 15. We caught up with the busy seniors to find out about their post-graduation plans, what they’ll miss about SEAS, and more.


Major: Computer Science
Hometown: Potomac, Maryland
Plans after graduation: Participating in the Venture for America Fellowship for the next two years.

Why computer science:
I've loved painting, drawing, and making music for as long as I can remember. After taking my first coding class at Columbia, I was amazed by how similarly creative it felt to art. I was drawn to the numerous ways to combine my interests and computer science through computer-generated music, graphics, and more!

The most important thing SEAS taught you:
I think one of the most important takeaways I've gotten from SEAS is learning to tackle seemingly intractable problems. Computer science especially has taught me that no matter your initial frustration or difficulty, rigorously breaking problems down enables you to surmount even the biggest mountains (see "words to live by" section below).

Favorite course:
Computer Graphics with Michael Reed. Building a Raytracer renderer from the ground up was such a beautiful illustration of the practical applications of data structures and linear algebra. Combining what I had learned with art and design, I was able to create renderings of Darth Vader, alien abductions, and other graphics, which was incredibly fun.

Senior design project:
Working with Professor Steven Feiner's lab to create augmented reality tools to assist in the study of a 16th century artistic manuscript. 

Favorite professor:
I've had too many incredible ones to count. One who really stands out to me is my Computer Vision professor, Shree Nayar, who demanded a deeper understanding of the course material than has ever been asked of me. Definitely got a workout from carrying around the hundreds of PowerPoint slides detailing the algorithms computers use to make sense of their world. 

Best CORE course and why:
I'll always treasure Contemporary Civilizations for pushing me to think deeply about the way I think and argue. Was even worth the 8 a.m. time slot.  

Unforgettable SEAS memories: 
I could go on for a while here, but traveling to Morocco with Engineers Without Borders, singing the Columbia fight song in the Delaware river at midnight on a COOP trip, eating whole watermelons on the steps with friends in the middle of the night, and the immense privilege of being surrounded by some of the most passionate, caring, creative, and thoughtfully engaged people I've ever met.

Inspirational figure in your life:
I'd like to give this shout out to my mother, whose drive, compassion, and wit never cease to inspire me. Sorry if I don't say it enough. Love you mom!

Singing with my a cappella group, Notes and Keys. Drawing. Backpacking and canoeing, especially with the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program. And of course, sitting on Low Beach.

Dream job:
Still figuring that out, but hopefully something involving a combination of music, art, and tech. 

Your favorite words to live by:
“There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb” (Lyrics from “The Climb”)

Your definition of engineering:
The process of iterative creativity, grounded in science, math, and technology, which breathes life into even the most imaginative ideas.


Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Nanchang, China
Plans after graduation: Attending Stanford as a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering

Why electrical engineering: 
I like technology, and electrical engineering covers most of its foundations.

The most important thing SEAS taught you:
Knowledge I gained through struggling in real projects stays with me longer than those seemingly easy concepts I learned in class.

Favorite course:
Digital Signal Processing. Several courses were on the list. DSP was the only one where the great lectures (by Professor Wright) were video-recorded and a higher level of efficiency was made possible.

Senior design project:
Work on the first VLSI hybrid computer. 

Favorite professors:
Yannis Tsividis and John Kymissis.

Unforgettable SEAS memories: 
Working with Professor Tsividis and all three of his awesome Ph.D. students, as the only undergrad, (and getting an office in CEPSR).

Last Movie You Saw:
Ajin. Atypical characters and nice fight scenes.

Horseback riding, shooting (clay pigeon and pistol), skiing, traveling (six continents and 25 countries so far), cuisine, anime, video games, piano.

Dream Job:
One that interests me, benefits others, and allows enough time for me to enjoy life.

Your definition of engineering:
Invention and creation applying knowledge from fundamental science to meet existing or expected needs.