What Does It Mean to Be an Engineer?

by Sujata K. Bhatia

Congratulations, engineering graduates! By completing this degree, you are becoming part of a very special group: you are becoming engineers. I want to share my own path to engineering; discuss what makes engineering a unique and noble profession; explain your roles and responsibilities as an engineer in our society; and give you some advice for success based on my own experiences.

I grew up as one of four children in a family of engineers and mathematicians. My parents would leave science and math and engineering textbooks around the house; they figured that if they exposed each of us to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics enough times, eventually something would take hold. My father inspired by example; I often saw him sitting at the kitchen table, late at night, working on engineering problems. I didn’t completely understand what he was doing, but I figured that it must be something fascinating and important to keep him up that late. It also made an impression on me because he seemed so happy and peaceful when he was doing his engineering work. So I figured that if I worked hard, maybe I could find that kind of happiness one day too. My mother, as a teacher, was more direct and explicit in her methods for inspiring others. When I was applying to college, she said, “You can be anything you want to be. You can be any kind of ENGINEER you want to be.”

Engineering as a profession is open to anyone and everyone, regardless of gender, race, family background, or social status, which is part of what makes it special. You don’t have to look a certain way to be an engineer. In fact, engineering benefits from having a diverse group of innovators, because only by bringing diverse perspectives can we invent and innovate for a diverse society. But engineering is also meaningful for deeper reasons. Engineers carry a sense of wonder for the world around them. We as engineers look out into the world, and we can see that everything has an underlying mathematical and mechanistic basis. We recognize that we can understand and model our world, using the tools of quantitative analysis. We see the connections and the exchanges between science and engineering, how advances in science lead to advances in engineering, and vice versa.

Most importantly, we as engineers realize that we have the ability to solve pressing world problems in energy, sustainability, transportation, education, healthcare, food, and the environment. While other disciplines in basic science aim to understand reality, engineers ultimately seek to build a new reality, a better place for everyone. When I pursued my education in biomedical engineering, and worked in the hospitals and clinics, I saw engineering everywhere. Engineering was needed for manufacturing the pharmaceuticals, designing the intravenous infusion pumps, programming the electronic medical records. I found that biomedical engineers were as much a part of patient care as nurses and physicians. Similarly, mechanical engineers and civil engineers contribute to transportation; environmental engineers contribute to sustainability and energy; and electrical engineers contribute to communications.

As engineers, we all want to help people. In fact, it is our duty to serve the public and address global grand challenges; to respect one another and work collaboratively; and to do our best to help others using our skills. Engineers can participate not only in making life better and more comfortable for everyone, but also in saving lives. My advice to you, as young and emerging engineers, is to always remember why you entered this profession in the first place. Always remember that your goal is to use your skills for the betterment of society. Importantly, always remember the sense of wonder and creativity that drives your interest in engineering.

I also advise you to be courageous and resilient, because engineers are needed now more than ever to solve difficult problems in the world. This field is for the brave, not for the faint of heart. This field is for those who are willing to stand up for what is right, not for those who just crave comfort and security. This field is also for the kind and caring souls, not for those who are cold or unfeeling, because engineering is at its core about humanity. I wish I could make sure that you always have a cheering section. But I cannot. What I can tell you is this: if you pursue your career as an engineer with dedication, with honesty, with commitment, with conscientiousness, and with love, then you can always be proud of yourself. You can look in the mirror and be your own cheering section. This is the definition of resilience. This is courageousness. This is character. This is what it means to be an ENGINEER.

There is one other ingredient though, and I want to end on this note. Engineering means being collegial. I saw a great movie recently called “My Own Private Idaho.” One of the characters in the movie has narcolepsy, which means he falls asleep throughout the day, and he can’t control it. In the final scene of the movie, we see this character passed out by the side of the road. A car pulls up, two men get out, and they steal the young man’s shoes and his money, and leave him on the side of the road. A minute later, another car pulls up, a man gets out, and he lifts up the young man and helps him into his car. And life is sort of like that. When you’re by the side of the road, some people are going to steal your shoes and steal your money and leave you there… and other people will lift you up and give you a ride. So when you think about yourself, and how you want to function in the world as an engineer, my advice is that you want to be the person that lifts other people up. It is your duty as an engineer, it will make you feel better about yourself, and it’s just plain the right thing to do.

Congratulations to all of you, engineering graduates. Never forget why you entered this profession, and never forget who you are. I stand in awe of you and your accomplishments, and I look forward to your future contributions to engineering.

Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, PhD, PE is a physician, bioengineer, and professionally licensed chemical engineer who serves on the teaching faculty of biomedical engineering at Harvard University.  She is the Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, and an Associate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project.

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Engaging Global Diaspora Communities for International Development

by Sujata K. Bhatia

Diasporas are communities of individuals who share a common heritage, yet are spread throughout the globe.  For instance, I am a member of the Indian diaspora, though I was born and raised in the United States.  My distinguished colleague Calestous Juma is a member of the Kenyan diaspora.  Such diasporas can play a powerful and influential role in international development, because the individuals in such diasporas share special knowledge and relationships within their diaspora communities.  Moreover, diasporans act as informal ambassadors for the United States in their countries of origin.  According to the United States Department of State, the United States is home to the largest number of global diaspora members of any country worldwide.  Continue reading

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Protecting US Critical Infrastructure: One Step Forward for Cybersecurity, One Back?

by Ryan Ellis

Ryan Ellis

Industrial control systems might be the most important technology that you have never heard of. They’re computer systems used to monitor and control a range of physical processes within critical infrastructures, such as opening valves or closing circuit breakers. It is no exaggeration to say that industrial control systems are essential to modern life: they help keep our lights on, our water clean, and our trains running on time.

But control systems—and the critical infrastructures within which they operate—are increasingly vulnerable to malicious cyber-intrusions. In last February’s State of the Union address, President Obama signaled the importance of protecting such infrastructures:

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

Shortly after, the President issued an Executive Order to enhance cybersecurity for US critical infrastructure. Then, in May, the Department of Homeland Security privately warned infrastructure operators that cyber-attacks were on the rise. There is no sense that these attacks have abated.

The growing awareness of the importance of protecting critical infrastructures from cyber-disruptions makes Rachel King’s July 20 report in the Wall Street Journal even more troubling. King reports that the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control System Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) recently canceled two long-planned conferences and a number of training sessions. The cancellations are likely an effect of sequestration—no funds. Continue reading

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Preparing Youth to Solve Global Grand Challenges

by Calestous Juma

In a bold move, the UK Government has announced the creation of a £1 million prize for a new “grand innovation challenge.”  According to Prime Minister David Cameron, the award would go to the next “penicillin” or a plane that could fly carbon-neutral across the Atlantic.

This effort will complement the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The inaugural prize will be awarded to the inventors of the Internet and World Wide Web in London on June 25, 2013.

The prize will not only recognize those who come up with outstanding ideas, but it will also serve as source of inspiration for young people. Getting the youth to focus their creative energies on solving the world’s pressing challenges needs to start early, especially in high schools. Continue reading

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Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Africa


by Sujata K. Bhatia

The global community is increasingly facing critical challenges in healthcare, energy, sustainability, and agriculture.  These issues are technologically complex, requiring scientific literacy among politicians, policymakers, and populations in both developed and developing nations.  Moreover, these issues demand innovative discoveries, requiring well-trained engineers to both invent creative and cost-effective solutions as well as inform decisionmakers on relevant technical considerations.

In order for solutions to global grand challenges to be practical and lasting, the innovative process leading to these solutions must be inclusive.  The voices of scientists and engineers from all nations must be incorporated into inclusive innovation, and the approaches of scientists and engineers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds must be incorporated into engineering inventions.  For instance, scientists and engineers from low and middle income countries have the best insights into the needs of these countries, and they can often develop the most elegant designs.

Worldwide, PhD-level scientists and engineers play a crucial role in fostering a climate of inclusive innovation.  Doctoral training imparts a student with in-depth knowledge in a particular field of science or engineering. PhD students learn to identify problems and work independently to derive solutions to those problems.  A PhD empowers an individual to solve open-ended problems, and enables the trainee to write technical papers and teach undergraduate students, both of which are critical for knowledge generation and knowledge transfer.

Within each nation, PhD-trained scientists and engineers run research groups and teach classes at universities; start companies and develop new products in the private sector; and provide expertise for government officials in the public sector.

A cadre of highly trained, PhD-educated scientists and engineers is therefore necessary for each nation, not only to generate innovative discoveries and to train the next generation of scientist and engineers, but also to train the next generation of congressmen and cabinet ministers, and thereby guarantee scientific literacy among world leaders and throughout the world.

The African continent is currently coping with a massive shortage of highly trained scientists and engineers…  Continue reading

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Change the Conversation, Change the Venue, and Change Our Future


by Melissa E. Hathaway

The Internet, together with the information communications technology (ICT) that underpins it, is a critical national resource for governments, a vital part of national infrastructures and a key driver of economic growth. Over the last 40 years, and particularly since the year 2000, governments and businesses have embraced the Internet, and ICT’s potential to generate income and employment, provide access to businesses and information, enable e-learning and facilitate government activities. In some countries, the Internet contributes up to eight percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and recent reports suggest that the industrial Internet opportunity (through modernization) represents a 46 percent share of the global economy.

Today, businesses around the world tender services and products through the Internet to more than 2.5 billion citizens using secure protocols and electronic payments. Services range from e-government, e-voting, e-banking, e-health and e-learning to next generation power grids, air traffic control and other essential services, all of which depend on a single infrastructure. The Internet is the fuel of the global economy and the backbone of the international financial system.

No country can afford to put their economy at risk. Increasingly, though, the availability, integrity and resilience of this core infrastructure are in harm’s way. For example, in March 2013, cyber criminals successfully launched a virus that penetrated the defences of multiple financial institutions in South Korea, including Shinhan Bank, the country’s fourth-largest bank, as well as two other banks — NongHyup and Jeju.

The motive was destruction of data using a malware similar to that used in the recent incident against Saudi Aramco, which destroyed data and rendered the main operating systems of computers useless. Additionally, a distributed denial of service (DDoS) campaign has been underway for the last year against the United States’ top financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, U.S. Bank and PNC. The DDoS attacks are reaching levels at which the telecommunications providers can no longer guarantee quality of service. In both cases, Internet banking services are being degraded or blocked outright…(Read more here.)

Melissa E. Hathaway is  senior advisor to Harvard Kennedy School’s cyber security initiative, Project Minerva, a joint effort among the US Department of Defense, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. She served as former acting senior director for cyberspace at the National Security Council. Ms. Hathaway is president of Hathaway Global Strategies, LLC

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Africa’s New Science and Innovation Agenda

by Calestous Juma

I am on my way back from the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. This was a remarkable meeting with an overwhelming intellectual energy.

The event was unique in many respects. But foremost, it was anchored by a preliminary meeting of the Grow Africa venture where private enterprises have pledged $3.5 billion in support to African agriculture. This was a serious event that involved heads of state and government from eight African countries.

I had the unique opportunity to be part of a small group of people working to connect science and technology with the larger business agenda of WEF. This group was moderated by the talented Lanre Akinola, Editor of This Is Africa, a regional brand of the Financial Times.

Lanre was superb. He had impeccable command of the details, and his ability to moderate a panel made up of ministers was truly masterful. My panel included Gunilla Carlsson (Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister), Claver Gatete (Rwandese Finance and Economic Planning Minister), and Frans van Houten (Royal Phillips Electronics CEO and Chairman).

The consensus of the panel was that Africa’s science and innovation agenda will be driven by contemporary challenges such as agriculture, health, and environment. “Africa’s solutions will help to contribute to solutions in industrialized countries in field such as green growth,” said Carlsson. Continue reading

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Global Grand Challenges for Engineering and International Development

by Sujata K. Bhatia

In an increasingly technological world, engineers and engineering are assuming an increasingly prominent role in addressing global challenges.  Engineering solutions will be critical for meeting the demands of a growing population and ensuring a high quality of life for all.  Moreover, engineering education is essential for creating a highly trained workforce worldwide and guaranteeing the next generation of innovative designers.  For these reasons, engineering is commanding greater attention in the policy arena.

In March 2013, a select group of 450 of the world’s top engineers, scientists, economists, designers, artists, philosophers, policymakers, and importantly students, convened at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London for the inaugural “Global Grand Challenges Summit.”  The international meeting was a joint effort of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.  The goals of the summit were to explore collaborative approaches for tackling global grand challenges, and to foster a spirit of interdisciplinary and international cooperation to meet the world’s most pressing needs.

The two-day conference was organized around six major themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology and growth, and resilience.  The meeting was highlighted by several distinguished speakers, two of whom were particularly notable. Continue reading

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Why the Government Matters: A Primer for Data-Minded Entrepreneurs


by Vivek Mohan

Washington can often be the last thing on an entrepreneur’s mind.  And naturally so – the culture of bureaucracy and reputation for being out of touch is the last thing that someone working on the cutting edge of technology wants to think about.  Developing innovative products, especially ones that are data-driven, often requires an out-of-the-box style of thinking that can seem directly antithetical to the lethargic enforcement mechanisms of the government.  But there are many good reasons for those working on the cutting edge to think about the issues that are “top of mind” for law enforcement and regulators during product development – and in Washington, DC, privacy is undoubtedly one of the key issues of the day.

Over the course of a series of blog posts, I’ll discuss some of the various facets of “privacy” that entrepreneurs should think about.  Most of you – especially those of you that work with personally identifiable information, or, even more sensitive health information – are probably familiar with data security.  Countless articles have led to the (somewhat justified) widespread fear of the risks of identity theft given a data breach or unauthorized disclosure of such information.  Yet among the informed public, fear of misuse of personal information is not limited to a wary eye towards cyber criminals – increasingly, concern has been voiced at the increasing power of the government in electronic surveillance.

Justice William O. Douglas, one of the leading lights on privacy of the 20th century, famously lamented in the 1966 case Osborn v. United States – “We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.” The last half-century has not quite seen our society devolve into this predicted dystopia; but the combination of rapidly evolving technology, changing social norms, and outdated laws have led us far closer to the edge than most expect.

Today, we’ll take a look at how laws can age in ways that we didn’t expect.  Despite the best intentions of the drafters, changing technology and behavior have impacted the operation of various laws to create counter-intuitive – and sometimes downright crazy – incentives.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, known as “ECPA,” which sets the standards that government agencies must adhere to when seeking to access an individual’s electronic communications, provides an excellent case in point.

Cloud computing has fundamentally changed the way we store and access data; now, as our most sensitive information is increasingly stored remotely by third parties, the law creates a set of perverse incentives for providers of that storage space.  In the late 1980s, email was delivered in a method much analogous to the postal service – email was “sent,” where it would reside upon a server until it was “pulled down” by the local machine that received the message.  Acting upon the belief that such basic precepts of electronic communications would endure, ECPA built upon this analogy.  In the physical world, mail that has been “abandoned” or discarded is no longer provided Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure.  In other words, the government does not need a warrant to root through your trash.  ECPA, for reasons that made sense in the 1980s, defined mail that had been read but was left on a remote server for more than six months as “abandoned” – thereby allowing the government to access it without a warrant.  Unread mail, however, no matter the age, was considered to still be “in transmission,” and the government needs a warrant – issued by a court after a showing of probable cause – to access it.

Let’s stop to think about this for a second:  in the age of cloud-based email, what does this mean?  Continue reading here.

Vivek Mohan is a Fellow of Information & Communications Technology Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  A graduate of Columbia Law School, Vivek is a native of the Bay Area, and formerly worked as an attorney for Microsoft in Washington DC. 

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Keeping the Internet Together through Technical Standards

by Jonah Force Hill

The Internet is held together as a globally interoperable communications platform through its shared set of technical protocols, message formats, and computer languages, collectively known as “Internet standards.” A growing chorus of national governments – including China and Russia – has argued that the organizations and processes that lead to standardization are both outmoded and inequitable. They contend that the current process unfairly favors American firms; that it produces standards with insufficient built-in security; and that it leads to standards that allow for a degree of freedom fundamentally at odds with the social norms of some nonwestern nations.

While efforts at reform have remained largely unsuccessful, the technical design decisions that were historically the sole province of engineers and academics have increasingly come under the political pressures of governments seeking to influence and reform them. Standards bodies continue to churn out new and improved standards for the international market. Yet there is concern about the future. Should a large country, or a coalition of countries, withdraw from the current standards process, they might effectively cleave the Internet at the technical level.

Such challenges represent a real and present threat to the continuing growth and value of the Internet. Nations supporting the current system, including the United States and its allies, need to use traditional, diplomatic persuasion, economic muscle, and “soft power” to sustain a system that has benefited not just the west, but those nations so desperately in need of the development potential that the Internet offers….

For the full article, see “A Balkanized Internet? The Uncertain Future of Global Internet Standards.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs



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