ENG 50th Anniversary Celebration Showcases Excellence and Impact
By Mark Dwortzan
With sunny skies overhead and an autumnal chill in the air, College of Engineering alumni from across the country converged on Cummington Mall on September 19 to celebrate the College’s first 50 years. The atmosphere was festive both outside, where cotton candy and popcorn were on offer, and inside various campus buildings, where alumni, faculty and students learned about high-impact ENG research and entrepreneurial achievements, toured new facilities, participated in a design challenge and engaged in spirited conversations about the past and future of the College.
Alumni-Student Lunch Panel
Speaking before an audience packed with current ENG students at the Boston University Photonics Center Colloquium Room, six exemplary alumni highlighted their career paths, how they’ve impacted society and how their engineering education has contributed to their success.
Kathleen McLaughlin (ECE’87) observed that the College’s emphasis on problem- solving skills and systems thinking served as “the perfect underpinning” for all she’s achieved since graduating. That includes a Rhodes Scholarship and two decades with the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she served as senior partner, and her current role as president of Walmart Foundation, where she’s responsible for corporate giving and initiatives in global sustainability, healthier food and women’s economic empowerment.
Fellow Rhodes Scholar Jennifer Gruber (AME’99) described a life path that took her from a Nebraska trailer park and childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut, to the BS/MS program at the College of Engineering, to 12-plus years at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Like McLaughlin, she cited her problem-solving mindset, cultivated at the College, as critical to her success as a mission control flight dynamics officer, mission planner and manager serving Space Shuttle and Space Station missions.
“The answers aren’t in the back of the book when you graduate,” said Gruber, who now manages a team tasked to ensure that all items are properly stowed aboard the Space Station. “Being able to not be intimidated by something that sounds difficult is actually a really good skill that you learn [at the College of Engineering] that I’m putting to use right now.”
Other panelists included Kevin Knopp (ECE’94) co-founder and CEO of 908 Devices, which produces handheld mass spectrometers; Kevin Kit Parker (BME’89), professor of bioengineering & applied physics at Harvard University and a leading traumatic brain injury researcher; Amit Jain (ECE’85,’88), president, CEO and co-founder of Prysm, Inc., which manufactures energy-efficient video walls (including the one recently installed in the lobby of 44 Cummington Mall); and George Savage (BME’81), co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Proteus Digital Health, which makes pills that double as medical monitoring sensors.
Reconnecting with Classmates and Iconic ENG Faculty
Alumni also had a chance to share memories with classmates and favorite faculty members at the Engineering Product Innovation Center’s (EPIC) Design Studio. Toting coffee, deserts and hors d’oeuvres and dressed in business casual attire, several graduates from as far back as the Class of 1964 caught up with more than a dozen long-time ENG faculty in the packed room.
Victor Almeida (EE’86), who develops software for Cigna Insurance Company, reconnected with Professor Emeritus David Perreault (ECE), who taught two of his favorite courses in digital logic.
“We talked about how kids today do amazing things we couldn’t imagine back then,” he said, pointing to mobile apps and drones as examples.
For Jose Andrade (CE’85), who has worked on Raytheon’s Patriot Air Missile Defense System for the past three decades, “back then” was a time when his undergraduate computer lab mushroomed from the size of a closet to the size of the EPIC Design Studio.
Michelle Tortolani (EE’87), fellow and past president of the Society of Women Engineers and an engineering program manager at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, marveled at how quickly time had passed since Commencement. “I’m proud to be an ENG graduate,” she said after conversing with Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE), whose courses in electronics she had taken. “It’s amazing to see how the school has grown.”
Reflecting on his reunions with alumni from the past decade who are now doing everything from completing law school to developing a chain of pediatric hospitals in India, Professor Steven Colburn (BME) observed, “It’s been exciting for me because so many of them are having such good lives!”
Design Challenge Energizes ENG Community
The 50th Anniversary Celebration featured not only talks and conversations but also hands-on activities. Alumni were treated to tours of the College’s newest facilities, including EPIC and the Singh Imagineering Lab, and a design challenge staged at the Photonics Center Colloquium Room, where four teams of alumni, students and faculty competed to design and build a small vehicle that could travel across four long tables under its own power.
Supplied with a bag of popsicle sticks, duct tape, straws, plastic wheels, balloons, batteries, circuit boards and other small parts, each team (representing the Electrical & Computer , Aerospace and Mechanical, Biomedical and Manufacturing engineering gathered around a table to talk strategy and produce a working vehicle within 45 minutes. As alumni, students, faculty and staff cheered from the sidelines and quadcopters delivered occasional “care packages” of additional supplies to the tables, the event’s emcee, Associate Professor Glynn Holt (ME), monitored the teams’ progress and interviewed random alumni in the audience.
After multiple test flights, all four teams completed the task, though some had to manually nudge their vehicles toward the finish line. The BME team, whose alumni included Lauren Black (’03,’06), Carissa Black (’01,’03,’06), Michael Young (’85,’89, MED’91) and Frank Salamone (’94), was the first to traverse all four tables. Holt recognized team BME for its performance, ECE for speed, AME for completing the course the most times, and AME for style.
Symposium and Banquet Highlight Research Impacting Society
At a late afternoon symposium at the Photonics Center Auditorium, alumni heard two talks on high-impact faculty research and a third focused on the value of higher education.
Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), director of the BU Photonics Center, described several photonic technologies that are improving our quality of life. These included Associate Professor Xue Han’s (BME) pioneering use of light to silence and activate neurons in the brain as a means of studying brain disorders and explore potential treatments; Professor Theodore Moustakas’ (ECE, MSE) patented technique to make blue LEDs found in smartphone and flat panel displays; and Bifano’s development of adaptive optics with deformable mirrors that are now being used to image retinal cells—technology that promises to improve clinical research on diabetic retinopathy.
Emphasizing the critical need for robust technologies to address outbreaks of the Ebola virus, malaria, HIV and other major diseases in the developing world, Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) asked, “What is it that I, as a BU engineer who is ready to make a positive impact on the world, can do for the world? We need technologies that are portable, low power, inexpensive, easy to use, robust and perform quantitative tests.” He highlighted one such technology, PharmaChk, which he’s now advancing to help reduce the prevalence of substandard and counterfeit drugs, a problem affecting hundreds of thousands of people every year. Field-tested in Africa, PharmaChk can test drugs at the point of care and anywhere along the supply chain.
Dean Kenneth Lutchen presented statistics and analysis showing that despite the buzz about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a residential college education—especially in engineering—remains an excellent investment, both in terms of financial success and preparation for lifelong learning and impact. The bottom line? “Go to college,” said Lutchen. “It’s expensive (partly) because it’s very valuable.”
The ENG 50th Anniversary Gala Banquet in the Trustee’s Ballroom capped off the day’s events. More than 200 alumni, friends, faculty and students attended the event, which featured a video presentation that explored the College’s history and some of the current research that promised to make significant impacts on our world. After dinner, Associate Professor Edward Damiano (BME) discussed his efforts to develop a bionic pancreas that could vastly improve the quality of life for people with Type 1 diabetes. Damiano’s handheld system, which automatically manages type 1 diabetes, was recently shown to be as effective as the conventional, manual approach, in which patients periodically check their own blood sugar levels and determine the amount of insulin needed.
Receptions for the ENG Class of 1964 and the ENG National Society of Black Engineers were held the following day on the ENG campus.