Focus on fundamentals yields broad societal benefits

Dean of Engineering H. Vincent Poor *77Why is an aerospace engineer who developed control systems for a lunar module investigating the genetics of cancer? How did an expert in statistical finance come to identify genes involved in childhood tumors?

In part, these unexpected combinations reflect the interdisciplinary approach that is increasingly common in academics: Solving complex problems often requires collaborations among people with different perspectives. At Princeton, there is another reason. Research in the School of Engineering and Applied Science tends to be very fundamental, meaning that we discover basic principles and techniques that enable many forms of technology. This focus on fundamentals grows out of Princeton’s tradition of excellence in mathematics and the physical sciences and often causes research in one area to prove useful in another. It also allows us to attack problems at their roots and create solutions with great value to society.

This issue of EQuad News looks at how Princeton engineers are advancing the understanding of biology and developing technologies to improve human health.

Our work in this area is one example of how we are increasingly organizing ourselves to address major societal needs. Research at Princeton Engineering also aims to create a cleaner environment, develop sustainable energy sources, strengthen national security, improve technology policy and mitigate risk in a world marked by uncertainty. In each case, the goal is to benefit society, but the journey starts with fundamental research. Individual researchers provide the deep expertise needed to solve slices of each problem, but the interactions among them and their interplay with colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, industry and government provide the context and inspiration to build solutions that are greater than the sum of their parts.

This combination of fundamental research and societal context also creates an excellent environment for teaching. In our new integrated curriculum for freshmen, students learn the basics of math and physics and immediately begin applying them to questions such as whether hydrogen fuel cells can help slow greenhouse warming. As just one other example, senior Michael Hsu worked last semester with civil engineering professor Julie Young to apply basic principles of fluid dynamics to the design of a better mechanical heart valve. This kind of experience shapes future leaders who can think deeply and broadly about technology and the opportunities it creates for business and society.

Beyond our focus on human health, this issue is full of stories about the people and ideas that make Princeton Engineering such an exciting place to work and learn. Please enjoy, and, as always, send your thoughts to


  • H. Vincent Poor