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Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Fischell

When Sarah Fischell B.S. ’78, M.Eng ’79, first stepped foot inside Bell Labs—one of the world’s foremost technology research institutes—she knew she was in a place of legend. It was 1979 and the young Cornell graduate had just been offered a job with an organization that today is credited with the development of the transistor, the laser, the solar cell, several computer program languages, 14 Nobel Prize Laureates and even a GRAMMY Award winner in sound technology.

“It was an exciting time of expansion at Bell Labs,” Fischell recalled of walking into the prestigious lab’s Holmdel, N.J., location for the first time with 100 other new hires. She had just completed her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and would return to Cornell later that year as part of Bell Labs’ One Year On Campus program, allowing her to obtain a master’s degree before fully immersing in her professional tenure.

Fischell had been hired as a systems engineer to improve voice and data communications services for business customers of the AT&T Network. “I was able to play a key role in the network implementation of many obscure network capabilities and a few recognizable ones, including caller ID and number portability,” said Fischell.

Fischell also served as one of AT&T’s on-campus recruiters, often recruiting students from Cornell. She used the same One Year On Campus program she participated in as a tool to attract prospective employees, and she says it was an important development tool for Bell Labs. “As a manager, I’d rather have a newly minted engineer who just completed a bachelor’s degree go away to school and get that one year of experience than take them into my operation while we were trying to actually get stuff done,” said Fischell. “It was worth it to me to pay to have somebody else get them through their first big project and help them build some engineering intuition.”

Fischell spent 20 years at Bell Labs and AT&T. Over the course of that time, the research lab and the overall corporation went through many structural changes to adapt to a changing regulatory framework, competitive landscape and technology market. “It was a good place to work—challenging technically and intellectually, with great colleagues. I was reasonably successful and happy there,” said Fischell. “By the mid to late 1990s, it was a tough industry to be in. While it was an interesting engineering challenge to continually increase capacity while continually decreasing unit cost, the pressure on cost-cutting was no fun.”

After leaving Bell Labs in 1998, Fischell became a telecommunications consultant before joining her family’s biomedical engineering enterprise. She served as co-founder, CFO and director of Afmedica, Inc., a medical device company that focused on pharmaceuticals and devices to prevent complications that occur following surgery.

Fischell retired in 2008 but stays busy with various volunteer activities. She also remains heavily involved with her alma mater as director-emeritus for the Cornell Engineering Alumni Association, member of the Engineering College Council and member of the Cornell University Council. She and her husband, David Fischell ’75, M.S. ‘78, Ph.D. ‘80, are also passionate supporters of the Big Red Marching and Pep Bands. The couple spearheaded and was a lead donor for the bands’ new 6,400-square-foot facility behind Schoellkopf Crescent.

Attributing her professional success to her electrical engineering education, Fischell says Cornell provided a foundation for her work ethic and critical thinking skills. “Even in the early years of my career, it was a rare day at work when I could apply the specific analytical and modeling techniques I had learned in class. However, Cornell totally prepared me to ask the right questions, to absorb new technical knowledge and to work with a group to define problems and find solutions to those problems,” said Fischell. “These skills were key to success in my engineering career.”

—Syl Kacapyr

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