Director’s Reflections, from Clif Pollock

I have had the pleasure of serving as director of ECE for almost 12 years, first from 2001-2008, and then again from 2014 to now, but my term is finally ending! I’m excited to announce our new director will be Professor Alyssa Apsel.

I have met over 1,000 ECE alumni (haven’t met a dull one yet) and look forward to hearing more great stories about your student experience and subsequent life. Cornell had a huge impact on your trajectory, and it is fun to hear about these journeys.  

A common story I hear is how some of the tough courses alumni took here—whether it was probability from Terry Fine or computer engineering from Norm Vrana—eventually led them to a better solution or deeper understanding of a problem at work. ECE still has a reputation as the hardest major, so perhaps we attract only the bravest of the students, but they make teaching in ECE a lot of fun.

One anecdote I will share occurred this fall. A student in my laser course said she got a phone call from her sister, asking what the term was for exciting an atom in a laser. “Pumping,” she responded, and the sister said “thanks” and hung-up. A while later she got a text explaining the phone call. Her twin sister is a business major at another prestigious university and she was at a bar participating in a trivia contest. The laser question came up, and thanks to her diligent engineer sister, her team was able to answer it correctly and won a $50 prize. I thought this was the perfect analogy for the traditional engineer. The business person calls the studious engineer when she needs help, gets the right answer and walks away with a reward!  

But the truth is, our engineers learn to be leaders and entrepreneurs who walk away with their own rewards, both experiential and monetary. And it’s our emphasis on foundational knowledge that empowers them to find answers and rise above the rest (including on trivia nights).  

As I reflect on my time as director, I want to point out two major changes that have occurred over the last six years. One is the Cornell Tech campus in New York City. ECE currently has two faculty members there now and is looking to continue hiring until we have perhaps 15-20 faculty there by 2030. It is a great opportunity for us to build an even stronger faculty, make connections to industry in New York City and have a direct connection to entrepreneurial opportunities. Stay tuned to learn more. 

The second change occurred with our M.Eng. program. We conscientiously changed the curriculum to include more professional advice and training and added a lot of rigor to the design project. M.Eng. students diligently plan and execute their projects, do lots of team work, make presentations and have to meet a schedule and budget. I believe it is among the best master’s degrees available in the nation today, which was the motivation toward the change. For a sample of the impressive M.Eng. projects, check out the winners from 2017.

Let me thank each of you for what you have contributed to the legacy of ECE at Cornell. Our culture, position and reputation today are due to the integrated input that each of you had in the classroom, on our faculty, in the research lab and through participation in the many groups that have tutored, sold coffee and donuts and generally added spontaneous life to an otherwise tough curriculum. Please, always stay in touch! I look forward to future connections with all of you.

Sincerely, Clif Pollock

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