Columbia Engineers Celebrate 2024 Reunion

Alumni return to campus for special events and lectures and the annual Dean’s Alumni Welcome Dinner & CEAA Awards Presentation.

Jun 12 2024 | By Allison Elliott

Columbia Engineering Reunion Weekend kicked off May 30, bringing more than 270 alumni to Morningside Campus to reconnect with former classmates and fellow alums, as well as faculty and staff.

On Thursday evening, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik and University Provost Angela Olinto joined Dean Shih-Fu Chang at the annual Dean’s Alumni Welcome Dinner & CEAA Awards Presentation at Casa Italiana to honor alums who have made a remarkable impact in their professions and for society. Alumni and guests, including former dean of Columbia Engineering and former provost of Columbia University Mary C. Boyce, mingled at the pre-dinner reception where William Lembeck BS’53, ’52CC was awarded the Crossed Hammer Award for years of distinguished service to the CEAA.

At the dinner, Dean Chang welcomed attendees and underscored the growing importance of science and engineering. “Engineering now permeates every area of society–as we now see with developments like generative AI being used across widely different domains and disciplines,” he said. “Engineering is more interdisciplinary than ever, more collaborative, more global, and more aware than ever before of the ethical implications of technology and our collective responsibilities to society and to the planet.”

Michael Pupin Medal for Service to the Nation

President Shafik commenced the award ceremony by bestowing the Michael Pupin Medal for Service to the Nation in Engineering, Science, or Technology. Shu Chien, who could not be in attendance, was awarded the medal for his pioneering work in cardiovascular research and visionary leadership in the fields of bioengineering and mechanobiology, his contribution to scholarship research and publications and to promoting health through engineering, science, and medicine. Chien received his PhD in physiology from Columbia in 1957, and was a professor at Columbia from 1969 to 1988.

Robert Lefkowitz ‘62CC, ‘66VPS was the second recipient of the Pupin Medal for his contributions to advancing healthcare, particularly through his work in cellular signal transduction and receptor biology, leading to the establishment of a new family of G-protein-coupled receptors. Nearly half of all prescription drugs, including beta-blockers used to treat cardiovascular disease, are designed to engage these receptors.

His fundamental research has made a lasting and profound impact on clinical medicine. As an educator, he has also authored articles and books, including his memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm, which recounts his transition from cardiology to biochemistry, which led to him winning the Nobel Prize in 2012.

Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement

Next, Dean Chang awarded James Scapa BS’78 with the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement for his significant contributions to the fields of computational science and artificial intelligence through his software company, Altair, of which he is founder, chairman, and CEO. Altair provides solutions for product development across automotive, aerospace, finance, energy, electronics, manufacturing and life sciences. 

Scapa was also commended for his support of students from disadvantaged backgrounds through the Altair #OnlyForward scholarship, which supports 10 undergraduate students pursuing STEM-related degrees. 

In his remarks, Scapa expressed gratitude to his parents, both Holocaust survivors who came to New York after immigrating to the United States from Greece.

Samuel Johnson Medal for Distinguished Achievement

For the final award, Provost Olinto presented the Samuel Johnson Medal for Distinguished Achievement to Armen Avanessians MS’83. The Johnson medal was created to honor achievement in a field other than engineering or applied science. 

Avanessians was recognized for his significant contributions to the fields of computational science and artificial intelligence through developments in simulation, Internet of Things, high performance computing and data analytics. 

As one of the original “quants” at Goldman Sachs, Avanessians moved up to become the global head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management’s quantitative, rules-based, and indexing businesses, until his retirement in 2022. In this role, he developed the teams, practices and platform for applying analytics across the firm’s activities. Avanessians earned an MS in electrical engineering in 1983 after earning his BSEE from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981. 

Avanessians noted that it was a pivotal time for the school of engineering, embedded, as it was, at the heart of the university and at the forefront of so much interdisciplinary research. 

Earlier in the day, Avanessians was recognized as the namesake of the Avanessians Conference Room for Data Science on the 14th floor on the campus’ Northwest Corner Building. The conference room honor recognized his gifts in support of doctoral students, the Avanessians Doctoral Fellowship for Engineering Thought Leaders and Innovators. In conjunction with the Data Science Institute, he also supports through the Directorship, Acceleration Funds and support for the space. Avanessians has also generously established the Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award for faculty who display commitment to diversity, which was recently awarded to Ngai Yin Yip, Lavon Duddleson Krumb Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, at Class Day

The awardees were also commended for their contributions over the years to Columbia through scholarship and fellowship support, professorships and a directorship. 

Engineering Faculty Talk AI, Space, and Robotics

Attendees were able to see faculty talks in action to learn about some of the cutting-edge research being done at Columbia Engineering. 

On Friday, May 31, Computer Science Professor Elias Bareinboim presented a master class on AI & Causality, during which he helped attendees understand some of the complexities and barriers to general applications of AI. 

Mechanical Engineering Professor, alum, and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino BS’84 spoke on Saturday morning to a full audience at Lerner Auditorium. Massimino recounted his journey "From Columbia to Space,” detailing his trajectory from Columbia University to the prestigious corridors of NASA. He shared insights from his 18-year tenure as a NASA astronaut, which encompassed two awe-inspiring spaceflights and four exhilarating spacewalks dedicated to the maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Also on Saturday, Sunil K. Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine, gave a talk on Rehabilitation Robotics, explaining how robotics can be used in novel ways to characterize human neuromuscular responses and retrain human functions. Agrawal, who heads the Columbia University Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory, designs innovative mechanisms/robots with these goals and performs scientific studies to improve human functions such as standing, walking, stair climbing, trunk control, head turning, and others. He gave an overview of how robotic technologies are helping people with stroke, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and the elderly improve their quality of life and range of movement. 

Celebrating Alumni and Great Teachers

Along with Class receptions and dinners, Columbia hosted a special reception for alumni of master’s and PhD programs, alumni of color, and a special dinner for this year’s Golden Lions, alumni celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation. 

The Society of Columbia Graduates also hosted a ceremony for the 2024 Great Teacher Awards. This year’s winners were David Vallancourt, senior lecturer in circuits and systems in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and from Columbia College, Denise Cruz, chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature and professor of English and comparative literature. 

Rounding out the celebration, attendees enjoyed lectures, tours, and activities on campus and in New York City, as well as a party on the waterfront at Chelsea Piers for alumni from Columbia Engineering, Columbia College, Columbia General Studies, and Barnard College.

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