Alma Mater Again: Columbia Engineers Come Home for Reunion 2018

Jun 20 2018 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Columbia engineers across decades and disciplines reconvened at Reunion this spring to toast distinguished peers and catch up on the coursework, technologies, and research making SEAS a global hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Kicking off the weekend at a May 31 dinner in Low Library, Dean Mary C. Boyce presented three remarkable Columbians with the school’s highest honors. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Robert H. Grubbs PhD GF’68, a professor emeritus at Cal Tech, received the Michael I. Pupin Medal for Service to the Nation in Engineering, Science or Technology for developing the Metathesis method in organic synthesis, which has enabled manufacturing of custom-built organometallic molecules for biomedicine and environmentally responsible chemistry.

“I spent three years at Columbia earning my PhD, and it probably was the most important three years of my life,” said Grubbs, recalling the influence of professors Ronald Breslow and Thomas Katz.

A longtime aerospace expert and executive at Boeing, James Albaugh MS’74 was awarded the Samuel Johnson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in a Field Other Than Engineering. He reflected on decades heading divisions in space propulsion, integrated defense systems, and commercial planes, arguing that engineers are particularly well-equipped to become great business leaders.

Digital video pioneer and entrepreneur Dr. Fermi Wang MS’89 M. Phil ’91 PhD’91, who as a graduate student collaborated with Professor Dimitris Anastassiou to develop compression algorithms that have become foundational to today’s streaming media services, received the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement for his work revolutionizing video transmission.

“Professor Anastassiou helped me to believe that what I had been dreaming could be my reality one day,” Wang said.

Reunion continued June 1 and 2 with department and class-specific gatherings, tours of Columbia’s growing campus, and a variety of faculty talks on topics spanning Aristotle to tax reform. Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering James T. Teherani updated alumni on how students’ coursework is preparation for a lifetime of interdisciplinary problem-solving.

“One of the classes that we love is called The Art of Engineering,” Teherani said. “It’s a beautiful course, taught by David Vallancourt, that takes in freshmen who are energized to go and explore the world and teaches them to look at society through the lens of engineering… It’s something that is very, very unique to Columbia.”

Teherani also showed alums around an electrical engineering lab, while Mohamed Haroun, manager of the Columbia MakerSpace, offered an inside look at the lavishly equipped facility giving the entire university community free 24/7 access to 3D printers, laser cutters, woodworking tools, sewing machines, and more, all for helping students “learn through recreation.” The increasingly bustling Makerspace will relocate within Mudd this January to a space five times as large with even more equipment.

Later, Dean Boyce moderated a panel discussion with three accomplished alumni entrepreneurs: Chelsey Roebuck ’10, executive director of Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering, Inc. (ELITE), a community-based STEM education organization; Kacey Ronaldson-Bouchard MS’11 PhD’15, cofounder of TARA Biosystems, a Columbia spin-out company commercializing organ-on-a-chip platforms; and Jessica Tsoong ’08, cofounder of WiFiSlam, a startup developing indoor location-based services that was acquired by Apple.  She is now an entrepreneur-in-residence at Relay Ventures. Every entrepreneur’s journey is different, each agreed, and the Columbia experience has proved ideal for succeeding in both the lab and the marketplace.

“Even from our beginning the foundational and the translational elements of science have been part of Columbia’s DNA,” Boyce said. “And now I think today is probably one of the most exciting times to be in science and engineering.”

Left to right: Fermi Wang MS’89 M. Phil ’91 PhD’91, Dean Mary C. Boyce, Dr. Robert H. Grubbs PhD GF’68, and James Albaugh MS’74.