Mary Boyce, Dean of Engineering at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, was in Mumbai to explore options for partnership in the field of research. Boyce’s visit is a part of the institute’s ‘Engineering for Humanity’ vision, which was launched earlier this year to bring about innovative research that has a positive impact on humanity — a sustainable, healthy, secure, connected and creative humanity.
Excerpts from an interview with Indian Express
You’re here to talk about Columbia’s Engineering for Humanity vision? Could you explain what it is about?
I think right now is an incredible time to be an engineer anywhere in the world because we see engineering impact in so much of our everyday lives. So when we were reflecting at Columbia where we are bringing our engineering to really have an impact, we identified that there were areas that were really key that we were focusing on. We found that those areas paralleled the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. We first started with sustainability — everything to do with air, water, climate, energy, food. How are we addressing to bring engineering to impact human health? How are we bringing engineering to impact security — today that could be in cyber security or security from natural disasters or man-made disasters. How as engineers we can come up with creative solutions… engineering is also enabling the creativity of others. We feel that it’s a great and powerful way to communicate — not only what’s going on in Columbia but everywhere and how engineering is impacting humanity. So that’s what we are referring to as Engineering for Humanity.
What does it mean for India and how can engineers here be a part of this journey?
When we look at India, we look at all of the challenges and an incredibly young growing community. I am astounded to hear that there are 400 million people between the ages 18 and 35. These young people want to be a part of shaping the future, the future of their lives, the future of their country and of the world. The problems are how are we going to have clean water, get rid of air pollution, provide energy to everybody, bring medical treatment and better health to the masses. To do this you need engineering to actually bring creative solutions. To bring solutions and medical treatment to a much larger population that’s more rural and away from the cities and even those in the city and at affordable prices, is going to require some totally different thinking. So, I think there’s a huge opportunity here. I would love to see Columbia participate in that opportunity and that’s one of the reasons we’re here.
Are you in talks with the government or the institutes here?
We have a number of Columbia faculty working in partnerships one-on-one or in small groups with different universities and government and NGOs here in India. We also see that there can be great power if we can capture that into something bigger together. We were just brainstorming on what should be our next step here. Some of it is confidential at the moment but we are focused on a few areas where we think there could be some really great impact. One of them is water. We think of the water resourcing, waste water treatment, there’s so much that we can bring to the table and also so much we can learn. We have faculty in architecture, business schools, policy and the sense that we know that water is a very multi-dimensional problem.
How can students be incentivised to pursue research?
First up, we are paying very careful attention to and are trying to attract incredibly talented diverse population to come and study engineering in the first place. We want the best minds to come and study engineering at Columbia. One of the elements there is, we have a big commitment to attracting women into this field too.
So we are entering the first year class of undergraduate course where women are 49 per cent. That’s an incredible statement of let’s get all the talent in the door right from the start. We’re trying to expose our students to all the different paths they could have and that includes research. So we have a number of programmes to get undergraduates to research labs.
They can then figure out if this is something they enjoy. Another message that’s very important is engineering is a foundational degree. At Columbia, we partner it with our foundational elements of liberal arts. We think those two elements together really are a framework for the future leaders of every field. We hope our government leaders, industry leaders, finance leaders, medical practitioner will have this kind of a foundation.