Foundation for the Future: Symposium Highlights 150 Years of Discovery and Innovation

Nov 21 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Videos: Jane Nisselson | Photos: David Dini

Growing human bone, building smarter infrastructures, harnessing big data, and developing new tools for brain imaging were just some of the exciting topics that took center stage at Columbia Engineering’s academic symposium Nov. 14. As part of the School’s 150th anniversary closing celebration, brief talks by 30 faculty presenters showcased the innovative research currently underway at the School—in areas such as atmospheric science, nano-scale engineering, privacy and security, and computational motion. Audience members also learned about Columbia Engineering pioneers and past discoveries that have made the School a leading hub today for groundbreaking research and academic excellence.

Use our playlist to navigate through videos from the symposium.

“Today, we are at a transformative juncture for our School and for Columbia,” said Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Engineering and Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor, “a time where we step back and reflect on our remarkable 150-year history while also moving boldly into a future where engineering is truly shaping nearly every aspect of our world. As we begin our next 150 years, our great legacy serves as a foundation for an even greater future.”

Biomedical Engineering Professor Andreas Hielscher, who organized and moderated the event, said the symposium was a great way to share with a wider audience what an amazing place the Engineering School has been in the past and continues to be today. “Be it Hollerith’s inventions of a tabulating machine and punch cards that advanced counting and computing (including the foundation of IBM), Elmer Gaden’s work on mass production of antibiotics, William Parsons construction of the first New York City subway line (No. 1 Broadway Line), or Edwin Howard Armstrong’s invention of the FM radio—we all are still affected today by their work performed over 60 years ago.”

Nearly 800 guests packed Roone Arledge Auditorium for a standing-room only journey through decades of the School’s pioneering research, then and now. Fifteen pairs of Engineering faculty shared the stage; one professor presented on a historic SEAS figure and past achievement while another talked about related research happening now at the School.

Shree Nayar, T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science, paired with colleague Chris Wiggins, associate professor of applied mathematics, kicked off the symposium with a brief history on alumnus Herman Hollerith and his technological breakthrough, the electric tabulating machine, used to calculate the 1890 census. Meanwhile, Wiggins, a data science expert, discussed the vast changes in computing today and explained how biology “became what we would now call a data science.” He discussed his work, with Columbia virologists, on building an algorithm that can predict whether a specific viral genome comes from a pig or a bird.

“This approach of taking complex problems from a complex world and re-framing them as data problems is alive and well in New York City now,” said Wiggins, noting that there are several new companies spawning that are using this approach to data and technology. Also currently serving as the chief data scientist at The New York Times, Wiggins is working with software engineers at the paper to take this predictive approach in learning the “genome” of their readers.


Underscoring the immense advances in X-ray imaging, Hielscher showed a historic video of the once hour-long process it took to develop a single X-ray image. Closing the program, Hielscher shared the stage with fellow biomedical engineer, Associate Professor Elizabeth Hillman, whose unique optical imaging tools make it possible today to investigate the relationship between blood flow and nerve cell activity in a living brain.

Frequent collaborators, Professors Ken Shepard and James Hone, delivered a lively presentation on their research in graphene, a single, atomic layer made of carbon and the strongest material ever measured, and their work on exploring the novel properties of other 2D materials. Alumnus Irving Langmuir, whose groundbreaking research in surface chemistry led to his 1932 Nobel Prize, was the featured historic figure.

Rather fittingly, Hone ended with, “So, where are we going from here? It turns out that graphene is actually one of just a very large family of these two dimensional atomically thin materials … and we’ve learned how to stack them on top of each other to create entirely new materials that you couldn’t get to before. That’s what we’re having a lot of fun with now, and we hope to be doing so for the next 10 or 20 years, and maybe, they’ll be talking about us at the next 300th anniversary,” he quipped.

While no one can predict the future, the incredible discovery and innovation underway at Columbia Engineering signals one thing for certain—the School’s next 150 years could not be any brighter.

“We should be very proud of our School,” said Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, “and grateful that we live in such an exciting time that presents so many challenges and offers so many opportunities for impact in virtually any area of human life.”

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