Sangeeta Bhatia: The Keynote Address

Sangeeta Bhatia
Sangeeta Bhatia '90
“What we are celebrating is not just the birth of a building, but a new or maybe renewed respect for the place of engineering at the heart of Brown’s efforts to serve the world.”

Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University

Sangeeta Bhatia, University trustee and 1990 engineering graduate, delivered the keynote address Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new School of Engineering building:

Good afternoon. I am so pleased to be here on this exciting day, and I am so proud to be an alumnus of Brown. I draw on my experiences here every single day in my work as a researcher, entrepreneur, and educator. What I learned at Brown as an undergraduate steered me toward a career at the interface of engineering and medicine, made me aware of the problems we face as a society and the possibility of technological solutions. Most importantly, I think, Brown gave me a tremendously strong foundation in both quantitative skills and the liberal arts that I would need to work effectively across disciplines as I try to make the world a better place.

Brown did all this for me with its inclusive approach to education, an approach that will be exemplified by the design and prominence of the planned building we are here to celebrate today.

This is a big moment for the future of our discipline.

What we are celebrating is not just the birth of a building, but a new or maybe renewed respect for the place of engineering at the heart of Brown's efforts to serve the world.

Most of us don't start out in engineering thinking we want to change the world. Instead, many of us start as tinkerers — as I did — with taking apart the family answering machine when it was broken to see if I could fix it. I did eventually find out what was wrong with it and fix it. I had some parts left over, but it seemed to work just fine. But it was a start.

But that's an example of how a young engineering mind works. It's an attitude of curiosity, and with that comes a kind of permission — allowing oneself to wonder, to check, to investigate, and later on, if that attitude is encouraged, to innovate and to invent solutions.

That attitude is critical to the fate of our society and a crucial piece of the education of tomorrow's leaders. But it is only truly developed in the context of foundational skills that define an engineer: the ability to apply mathematics, empirical evidence, and scientific knowledge — to create inventive solutions to problems. In order to invent you need intuition. And in order to develop intuition as an engineer, you need the opportunity to see problems solved over and over again, from many different perspectives. A student at Brown might see the same mathematical derivation in fluids and optics and then again in heat transfer, with the underlying mathematical framework as the constant. It is from this platform of understanding that we truly can begin to be creative.

And so I'm a believer that engineering education needs to be broad as well as deep, with exposure across multiple disciplines, so we can discover the relationship between domains of expertise and use that insight to tackle grand challenges. This is quintessentially the Brown way.

In 2015, many people still have this image of an engineer as kind of a nerdy guy, interested in taking things apart, someone who stays up all night playing video games and eating Doritos, with very few social skills. Right?

This popular conception seems to confirm to many young people that engineering is for a certain kind of person — not for them. Some may be afraid they cannot handle a technical education grounded in mathematics, even as they are drawn to solving the problems of the world. And so they may shy away from engineering, never realizing that it might be a field that is illuminating and exciting and available for their unique contributions.

Yet engineering is one of the most dynamic and ever-changing fields in modern history — moving alongside and driving human endeavor as it has evolved, while in itself expanding the limits of our imagination of what we can achieve.

Brown has always been the exception to the notion that the place engineering belongs is outside of a liberal arts education. Throughout its history, Brown has instead brought engineering directly into the liberal arts experience.

Most people do not realize that Brown was the third school in the country and the first in the Ivy League to offer an engineering program. Back then, in 1847, the spans and scales of engineers' imaginations were easily visible to everyone: Suspension bridges across mighty rivers, gorgeous feats of design, mechanics, and physics from the Brooklyn to the Golden Gate continue to inspire awe while facilitating transport and commerce every day. Engineers solved seemingly intractable physical problems, like bringing railroads across the mountains or building canals between oceans.

In these ways, engineering visibly and obviously enabled the goals of civilization. Yet in some ways these projects reinforced the idea of engineer as servant to invention, not its driver. And perhaps as the mechanic of science, not its investigative partner. Even when science began to be recognized as a fundamental part of engineering, engineers' efforts mostly developed in service of the nation's goals of war and defense and the space race.

Yet in the 1960s and '70s, as we understood more about the environment and natural systems, as materials science continued to advance, and as medical science matured, engineering began to partner closely with science in making the greatest advances we enjoy today — in medicine, in our energy economy, and in the digital revolution.

Engineering is informed design — deliberate and mathematical. So it makes sense that incorporating more engineers and engineering thinking into liberal arts education must also happen by deliberate process.

We have arrived at this moment because of a long and thoughtful process at Brown on how to incorporate engineering thinking into the intellectual life of all students.

From the beginning, leaders at Brown have taken a multidisciplinary approach to education. Brown's concepts of diversity and the importance of a multidisciplinary education are grounded in the 19th century. In 1850, Brown administrators famously introduced a new curriculum that allowed students to explore across disciplines. In 1916, the Division of Engineering itself became multidisciplinary by developing a core of engineering education housing mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering together in an integrated model that is emulated by schools across the country to this day.

That foundation has supported engineering education at Brown ever since and was hugely important to my own career. We were encouraged (actually required!) to learn across those areas, and I would find myself leaving Brown as a biomedical engineering concentrator equipped with the broad foundational skills to obtain an M.S. in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and then later join a faculty of electrical engineering and computer science.

But we were also exposed to all of the arts and sciences, and that equally prepared me for what I am doing today. Back then, in the 1980s, biomedical engineering was still a relatively new field. As an engineering student, I was interested and encouraged to take human physiology right alongside first-year medical students. I would go on to complete my medical degree in Boston and secure one of few joint appointments between MIT's School of Engineering and the Harvard hospitals.

Taking human physiology here at Brown was also how I got introduced to what would become my field. All because I was walking on my way to class past a lab with a sign on the door that read "artificial organs." I begged them to let me intern and I would spend the summer working on using electricity-producing plastics (piezoelectrics) to enhance nerve regeneration. For me, it was an a-ha moment. I would go on to spend my career working on artificial livers using engineering tools drawn from computer chip manufacturing and more recently things like 3-D printing.

Now I realize that not everybody might be excited by a lab called "artificial organs," but that's the point. We don't always know what we'll be excited by until we see it. This tells us the importance of exposure — both academic and physical. Sometimes you don't know about something — or what might really grab you — until you literally walk past it.

The groundbreaking of this building represents Brown's commitment to allow students to walk past or otherwise encounter, academically and physically, fields that may excite their imagination.

It is also the result of an acceleration and deepening of the Brown commitment to center technological and scientific education at the heart of liberal arts. This reinvigoration began in 2010 when the Division of Engineering at last became the School of Engineering — at a time when the STEM fields were increasingly recognized as critical to U.S. competence and competitiveness in the world.

And once engineering became a school, well, it was time to find an architect. Because a school needs a building.

Those of us who studied engineering at Brown know that the school needs a building. Though I recall many happy days and exciting moments, I remember my first Engin 3 exam in a Barus and Holley classroom. It was so dimly lit that my solar calculator wouldn't function and I almost had a heart attack. An engineer without her calculator! Just imagine. Thankfully, I did just fine. I also remember many nights in the basement of Prince Labs. I remember the wind tunnels, the pendulum lab, and being a teaching assistant programming in the now-dead computer language Pascal. The details were less important than the engineering approach, the fundamentals with which I was equipped to go out and tackle new problems.I learned so much, and yet I also know what more our students could learn with the access to state-of-the art facilities.

The Brown University School of Engineering new engineering research building will be a beautiful, 80,000-square-foot glass vanguard structure sited right here, where students come and go, encouraging collaborations among departments and schools. When the School of Engineering is set at the center of campus in this way — a deliberate decision — it becomes normalized as a part of all students' lives. It will contain state-of-the-art teaching and research laboratories, like a nanotechnology clean room, a bio clean room, an imaging suite, collaboration spaces, and equipment for undertaking engineering investigations at multiple scales. And the laboratories are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate all science that Brown engineering might want to do in the next 50 years. Importantly, it will have eating and green spaces — because that's one thing that never changes, that students come together around food. And it will have a lobby space dedicated to our legendary and beloved Barrett Hazeltine, aptly named Hazeltine Commons. The building has innovative features even in its conception — following an integrated project delivery process for its design and construction, the first university lab building in the country to use a collaborative model where a "virtual company" is created to include all stakeholders to share in the profits and losses of the project together. An experiment within an experiment. And when it is occupied in early 2018, the building will even have energy-saving features like external fins to manage solar gain.

But it doesn't end with the building. The School's strategic plan includes a commitment to include technology education in the journey of all undergraduates. This is intended to help students recognize how integrated technology is in the human experience, and to feel less wary of engineering and us nerdy engineers.

It's already working, before the building has gone up. Among incoming students, engineering is already the number one planned concentration — about one in three students already deciding that is what they would like to study. And what I find even more amazing is that by the time they graduate, 45 percent of all students will have taken at least one engineering class.

The commitment to a state-of-the-art facility also helps Brown attract the very best faculty — which makes all the difference, not only for the reputation of the University, which will help it continue to grow and expand, but also for the student experience. With the new building, we can grow the faculty from 50 to 60. To truly succeed and learn to innovate, we need even more information beyond the foundational skills of our education. We need ideas about what we can do in the world, to be exposed to different types of research and professions. We need mentors, to open our minds to what's possible and to find models for ourselves as individuals and in our future careers. I went on to pursue my Ph.D. because a mentor at Brown first planted the seed in my mind.

The issue of mentoring is especially important for recruiting and retaining women and under-represented minorities in our field. Since 1891, when women were first admitted to Brown with the establishment of the Women's College, our school has had a history of inclusion and encouragement of women, but the gains for women in engineering, physics, and medicine have taken time.

When I was a freshman in 1986, I was surrounded by women in the engineering program, and thought there was no diversity problem — until I looked around senior year and there were only seven women left out of a class of 100. This has been dubbed the problem of disproportionate attrition and it's just one part of a leaky pipeline that afflicts both women and minorities in engineering.

Being engineers, my friend Theresia Gouw and I decided to investigate this.

We surveyed those who had stayed and found that every one of them had had mentors or parents who encouraged them. This was my first window into understanding what encourages or discourages women in fields where they have historically been in the minority, and where unconscious bias — or simply a basic feeling of not belonging — might persist, even in subtle ways. It set me off on a lifelong pursuit of understanding how to encourage, attract, and keep women in this field. It has to start young, with exposure and encouragement. And that pipeline has to be sealed, without leaks, all the way through high school, through the undergraduate and graduate experience, into the faculty, university leadership, and entrpreneurship.

We have made great strides since then. I would happily go on to become one of the youngest woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. I should say that my two daughters were wholly unimpressed by this, but they did like the fact that I now have a Lego figurine in my likeness. At Brown, we are making progress too. We no longer have a disproportionate attrition of women concentrators in engineering. And in 2015 we will graduate 41 percent women. In the last several years, we have also made inroads to diversifying the faculty through four amazing hires, though there is still more to do.

But it's incumbent upon all of us to make sure we keep those avenues of mentorship, skills development, and exposure to opportunity open all along the way.

What Brown is doing with the School of Engineering and with this building is encouraging all of us to remain practitioners in the technical fields — as the best way of both creating those opportunities and reaching young people directly, serving as mentors in the same way others did for us.

And so what do we hope young people will gain from a technical education in a liberal arts environment today? The academic goals for the Brown campaign give us a sense of what that education might look like. They are wide-ranging and focused, aspirational and specific — much like the thinking we hope to encourage — and all focused on the biggest global challenges. They include:

  • cultivating creative expression;
  • understanding the human brain;
  • sustaining life on Earth;
  • creating just and peaceful societies;
  • exploring human experience;
  • using technology to save lives;
  • deciphering disease; and
  • improving population health.


Ambition is exciting — by putting these goals on paper we are inviting the student body to think big. And by incorporating technology competence into their education we are training them not to shy away from being those who push themselves to find solutions. The truth is, it's not possible to pursue these goals without engineering at their center.

Yet none of this happens overnight, alone, or without another core piece of knowledge — understanding how to turn engineering ideas into good business, so that solutions are spread throughout the world.

We have every kind of notable alum, even in recent years. From bridge building to steel innovation in earlier days, to those of us making biomedical advances, to a record-setting astronaut, it is clear we have all had a rigorous education in technology and science. But it is also important to note that some of the best-known alumni of Brown engineering are leaders not only in technology, but in business. Relatively recent graduates have been written up not in scientific journals, but in Forbes. We have CEOs in our history — of Blackberry, Eastman Kodak, and Motorola, and senior executives at companies like Cisco.

This is because Brown also takes the time to teach its students about how to be leaders and about the process of bringing great ideas to application in the real world. I will never forget taking Engin 9, affectionately known as "Shocks for Jocks" from Barrett and learning about net present value while being peppered with "are we friends?" It left me prepared to write my first business plan and successfully raise venture capital.

Of course technology does not, in itself, solve problems. It is not a panacea it and takes time to be incorporated into real world solutions. Young people today are bombarded by the message that success is instant, that wealth is created overnight.

Personally, I am trying to make advances in medical technology — we are working toward a cancer detector with a paper readout for resource-poor settings. Yet I know there will be a long process before my inventions impact human health, and I understand, from my time at Brown, the principles of successful entrepreneurship in bringing my work forward.

I like to think that I represent the modern engineer, not that nerdy guy playing video games.

And we are everywhere. We are involved in medicine, in environmental systems, in public health, in clean energy development, in space, in robotics, in computer science — and, as a result, we are standing at the center of solving the world's greatest challenges. We are technologists. We are humanists. We are multidisciplinary. We are innovators.

Today we ensure that more and more students will get the education they need to make a difference, walking the halls of a great new center of learning at Brown.

Thank you for having me.

Sangeeta Bhatia is the Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.