As I reflect on joining Princeton University's engineering school 100 years after its founding and in a year of enormous global challenges, I have great optimism. Why?
I see an inflection point: An amazing history coming together with forward-looking initiatives to set us up for decades — indeed, another century — of delivering the kind of transformative, integrated innovations humanity so urgently needs.
Let’s look at the history for a moment. The engineering school started in the early 20th century as Princeton University was emerging as a powerhouse of math and physics. Albert Einstein arrived to help form the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study. Alan Turing *38, the founder of computing, came to Princeton to work with eminent mathematicians and complete the Ph.D. thesis that brilliantly conceived the core concepts of what was to become computer science. With these pioneers, Princeton established a culture and tradition that continues today: Dig deep into the most fundamental questions from which revolutionary insights and discoveries will emerge.
Another Princeton tradition is equally important. Long before the University adopted its informal motto calling on us all to be “in the service of humanity,” the School of Engineering was formed with that very purpose. The group of alumni who urged Princeton to create the school (note the critical role of alumni) wrote in the Princeton Alumni Weekly: “An engineer may be considered as an applier of science for the benefit of mankind. That function implies an equal understanding of science on the one hand, and of human needs and trends on the other.”
These alumni had a clear vision of the impact that a strong engineering school in the heart of a great liberal arts university could have. Indeed, our faculty, students, and alumni built entire fields and innovations that are now common in our everyday lives. After Turing, the fields of computing, networking, wireless, and artificial intelligence, and now quantum computing, have all grown and flourished at Princeton. Robert Kahn, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1964, is known as the “father of the internet” for co-inventing the communications protocols the internet still uses today. Princeton engineers, both faculty and alumni, have pioneered major advances in aerospace, energy and the environment, materials science, biological engineering, and other areas central to modern life. The profound contributions of our faculty are recognized with robust representation in the national academies of engineering and sciences, MacArthur “Genius” grants, a Nobel Prize, and many other honors.
Innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership have been vital parts of bringing the depth and breadth of Princeton engineering to the world. Jeff Bezos ’86 founded Amazon, and Eric Schmidt ’76 led Google through its greatest period of growth. Eli Harari, who earned his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1973, pioneered the creation of fl ash memory when he founded SanDisk in 1988. Frances Arnold ’79 won a Nobel Prize and Lisa Jackson *86 directed the U.S. EPA. Today, the list of successful founders and innovators among faculty and alumni is long and impressive, as is the list of alumni leaders in academia, business, and public service.
That storied history brings us to an exciting place as we move boldly into the next century. As dean, I am excited to grow the engineering school signifi cantly and ensure our place at the forefront of creating the knowledge, innovations, and next generations of leaders our society needs. We are in a unique position to strengthen and leverage our connections to the liberal arts and to Princeton's leadership in public policy as we drive forward major initiatives in bioengineering, robotics, the future of cities, data science and quantum computing, and our continuing investments in high-impact work in energy and the environment (see brief highlights in these pages). We also are boosting our innovation ecosystem by increasing our engagement with industry and fostering more entrepreneurship. To support these initiatives and deepen our connections across campus, we are building an entirely new engineering neighborhood (see p. 6) that will provide a foundation for decades of growth and impact.
Key to this vision for an engineering school truly in the service of humanity is the diversity of our community. We cannot create and harness technology that benefi ts everyone without the broad perspectives and skills of a diverse community. I mentioned Princeton alumnus Alan Turing earlier — a person whose breathtaking innovations literally saved lives as he broke codes in World War II, and who died as a result of grotesque discrimination. My experience as an academic, entrepreneur and leader has convinced me that the engineering profession cannot reach its full potential without forging a culture that embraces all talented contributors and allows them to reach their full potential. I am proud that among my three most recent predecessors as dean — all of whom have made profound contributions in their fi elds — two have been women. As we work within the school toward a truly diverse and inclusive community, we are not yet where we need to be, but we are making progress and seek to serve as a role model to other engineering schools and the profession in this endeavor.
Since I started as dean last September, I have been meeting with every engineering faculty member as well as many other faculty members and leaders across Princeton. Coming from Stanford and as a founder of two companies myself, I am impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the engineering faculty, as well as the support of the Princeton leadership for the school’s aspirations. Students also are responding; more than a quarter of undergraduates at Princeton are now majoring in engineering.
I also am impressed by how collegial and collaborative the faculty are, and how easily they work across disciplinary boundaries. I hear faculty and their students saying the collaborative culture in engineering has allowed them to accomplish more than they ever expected. These are modern engineers — excellent in their disciplines, but also fearless in collaborating across fi elds and with industry to create technology that improves lives and tackles complex societal problems. In this magazine, we celebrate our 100-year anniversary not to look backward, but to harness our history to build a better world going forward, which is the optimistic essence of engineering. Please join us and share with us your own stories of how you are using engineering and technology to serve humanity.