Oral-History:Elisabeth Paté-Cornell

About Elisabeth Paté-Cornell

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1948. She attended public school in Dakar and La Rochelle, France before going on to higher education. She attained a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and physics from Aix-Marseille Univeristy in 1968 and master's and engineering degrees in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from the Institut Polytechnique de Grenoble, France in 1970. She continued on to Stanford University to complete a Master's degree in Operations Research and a Ph.D. in Engineering-Economic Systems in 1972 and 1978, respectively.

After completing her degrees, she accepted a faculty position at MIT in the Department of Civil Engineering, where she initiated several research projects on risk analysis and seismic engineering and activity. She later returned to Stanford University in 1981 to be an Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management (IEEM) before becoming Professor in 1991 and the Department Chair in 1997. She also accepted a visiting professor position at Georgia Institute of Technology during her sabbatical year, and one at New York University in the Department of Finance and Risk Analysis. Currently she holds the position of Professor andformer department Chair (from 2000-2011), of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. She is also Senior Fellow of the Stanford for International Studies.

A world leader in engineering risk analysis, risk management, and decision analysis under uncertainty research, her contributions to the scientific community have led her to be recognized through several distinguished positions and awards. Most recently she received the Ramsey Award for the Decision Analysis Society and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society of Risk Analysis, and Teaching Award from the Stanford Department of Management Science and Engineering, in 2002, and served as consultant to NASA in 1999-2000 as Chair of the Review Panel for the Quantitative Risk Analyses of the Space Shuttle. Additionally she has held several other positions and roles, such as Chair of the Decision Analysis Society of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), President of the Society for Risk Analysis, the Academie des Technologies Conseiller since 2001, and a member of the (US) National Academy of Engineering since 1995, the French National Academy of Engineering, and Board of Directors of WingTech and Energy Recovery Inc. (ERI) in California since 2004 and 2009, respectively, as well as several government, editorial, and advisory boards.

In this interview, Paté-Cornell discusses her education, career, and contributions to the field of risk analysis and engineering. She recounts her student days, and her research projects and work at MIT and Stanford. She reflects on the decisions, difficulties, and successes of her career, her involvement with several groups and organizations, and on the role and challenges faced by women entering STEM fields. Additionally, she discusses the evolution of STEM education and provides advice to individuals interested in the STEM fields.

About the Interview

ELISABETH PATÉ-CORNELL: An Interview Conducted by Kelsey Irvin, IEEE History Center, 26 January 2015.

Interview #685 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, an oral history conducted in 2015 by Kelsey Irvin, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Elisabeth Paté-Cornell
INTERVIEWER: Kelsey Irvin
DATE: 26 January 2015
PLACE: Teleconference

Introduction

Irvin:

Dr. Paté-Cornell, I would like to welcome you to your oral history interview. We hope to learn the significant events of your life to best understand how you got where you are today. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to answer any questions at any time, we can move on to any other question keeping in mind that you will be able to edit the transcript and add or delete anything you would like.

Let’s begin by talking about your early life and education.

Early Life and Education

Irvin:

Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood?

Paté-Cornell:

Certainly. I was the daughter of an officer of the French Marine Corps; so, I was born in Western Africa, in Dakar, and we went back to Europe when I was a small child. Then, as I was about to enter Junior High, we returned to Senegal, and for my Junior High studies, I went through the public school system at the Lycée of Dakar, which was part of the French education system but where a large percentage of the students were Africans. I enjoyed it very much and that was a very important experience in my education. We then returned to Europe and I found it very different! In my new high school in La Rochelle, the students, who came mostly from the same region, all looked alike to me…

Irvin:

Were you interested in technology and engineering when you were younger?

Paté-Cornell:

I liked to figure out how things worked (including my mother’s sewing machine!). But I was especially interested in math and physics, which, in the French system, is the place to start if you want to study engineering. I liked it very much and I decided that computer science was my best option. So, I got my engineering degree in applied math and computer science. I then discovered that I had an opportunity to come study in the US and I came to Stanford for a Master’s and a PhD.

Irvin:

Did you have a role model who inspired your technical interests?

Paté-Cornell:

No, not really, even though my father was an engineer himself. But computer science was new when I started and it was a personal decision.

Irvin:

Did your family encourage your technical interests?

Paté-Cornell:

I would not go that far. They did not object to the point of telling me not to do it, but they were not particularly enthusiastic because they did not consider it very feminine. But that was fine; they still supported me and I kept going. I think that they understood later that it was a good choice.

Irvin:

Well that’s good. So what were your parents’ occupations?

Paté-Cornell:

As I said, my father was an Officer of the French Marine Corp, and my mother, was a wife and a mom.

Irvin:

Did you have siblings?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, I have two sisters. One of them is a pediatrician, and the other one has a doctorate in pharmacy and is a specialist of blood problems.

Irvin:

Okay, wow. So you did your undergraduate education in France. Did you have any influential professors there?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, I had two excellent professors of mathematics. But the one who had most influence in my career was one of my teachers in graduate school. I was studying computer science in Grenoble and I had a very good professor of Operations Research, Professor Kaufman, who happened to know Professor Danzig at Stanford. So he encouraged me to come to Stanford and supported my application to a Master’s in Operations Research.

Irvin:

Okay, so that’s what led you to Stanford?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes. It was definitely the best OR department that I knew about, and I had there a support that allowed me to study in a domain that I truly enjoyed.

Irvin:

So how did you select your majors in Mathematics and Physics in your undergraduate?

Paté-Cornell:

Oh simply because I liked it. In fact, I really had a choice at some point between mathematics and physics on one side, and classics and literature on the other. I thought for a while and concluded that math, physics and engineering would allow me to keep all my interests in literature and classics while providing a wider spectrum of career opportunities.

Graduate Studies at Stanford and in France

Irvin:

In your classes, did you enjoy more the theoretical component or the research component?

Paté-Cornell:

Both. But I did not discover the research component until I was in the department of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford, to which I had shifted after one year in Operations Research, to do some risk analysis for my PhD.

Irvin:

Okay, so how did you decide to obtain a Master’s degree following your undergraduate?

Paté-Cornell:

Some of my friends were going to the US to do it, and I thought it was a great opportunity. I think that at this time I was looking for something different and I am glad I did!

Irvin:

Did you consider enrolling directly in a Ph.D. program?

Paté-Cornell:

That was not an option. I was coming from France and it was not possible, as far as I knew, to apply straight for a Ph.D. program. But I also needed a bit of time to learn a new language, adapt to a new country and get a mathematical and technical culture before shifting to a PhD.

Irvin:

So how did you then decide to obtain an Engineer Degree afterwards?

Paté-Cornell:

I got several degrees both in France and at Stanford. The first one I got in Grenoble, at the Institut Polytechnique. Then, I discovered that I could apply what I had learned in Operations Research to real things of life, and risk analysis was particularly interesting to me because it applied to so many fields. That’s how I decided to pursue that path for my PhD.

Irvin:

Alright. Your CV mentions that you stayed with a major of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics for your Engineer Degree. What motivated you to select this topic?

Paté-Cornell:

The topic of my Engineer thesis involved some solving differential systems inside any domain that I could define on a computer screen with an electronic pencil. It was interesting –and it was just fun! I don’t remember if someone picked it for me or if I heard about it, but I am glad I did. In any case, there was a theoretical part of it but also opportunities for practical applications such as computing an electric field within a specified domain.

Irvin:

During your undergraduate years in France, can you describe the cultural and technical environment at that time there?

Paté-Cornell:

Around me, the teaching was very theoretical - there was little that was technical about it. It was math, physics and chemistry with little practical considerations. But it was a solid base on which one could construct later. In any case, the education environment that I had chosen was very strict and very disciplined. There were very few young women. There were only two of us in my class, studying in a very competitive program. We entered an engineering school on the basis of competitive exams.

Irvin:

So you said there were only two women in your class - out of how many?

Paté-Cornell:

Out of fifty or something like that.

Irvin:

So then after you went to Stanford for your second Master’s and Ph.D., how did you select your major of Operations Research for your Master’s?

Paté-Cornell:

As I mentioned earlier, one of my professors was a friend of a prominent professor of Operations Research here at Stanford. He contacted him and I was admitted in the Master’s Program in OR.

Irvin:

Okay. Did one of them end up being your Ph.D. advisor?

Paté-Cornell:

No, not for my MS degree; and for my PhD, I shifted fields. I joined a department called Engineering-Economic Systems to do my PhD in risk analysis with an emphasis on seismic risk mitigation.

Irvin:

What led to that shift?

Paté-Cornell:

Because it was more applied, much broader in its scope than OR as I saw it, and I wanted to do something that I thought was more directly relevant to public policy. There were some social science, economics and policy aspects that I truly enjoyed in addition to the more technical part of my work.

Irvin:

How did you select the topic of earthquake engineering and earthquake prediction for your Ph.D. thesis?

Paté-Cornell:

I had friends who were working in that field and I became part of a team. But also, shortly after I moved to California, I had experienced a small earthquake. I thought it was pretty scary! It was a subject that was of interest worldwide and I decided that it would be a good research topic. It turned out later that the fundamental model that I developed was applicable to many other problems.

Irvin:

Out of all of your education, what part of it do you think was most beneficial to your career?

Paté-Cornell:

Unquestionably, it was the fundamental bases that I had acquired early in math and physics. That’s what all along has been extremely helpful. Once you have that strong base, research in a topic that calls for mathematical modeling and that really interests you is much easier.

Irvin:

What moments in your younger life, whether in high school or in your undergraduate, stand out as critical moments in your career?

Paté-Cornell:

It was probably when I took the competitive exams to enter the major schools of engineering in France. That’s how I entered a school of computer science.

Irvin:

So now that we’ve talked a little bit about your early life, we can move on to your career.


Irvin:

Did you work at all while you were in school in France?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes. I had to! I was teaching math and physics in a private high school while studying in Grenoble, but I also had several internships, one in which I was developing a software for the European navies, and one in a metallurgic factory where I ended up gathering data in a forge to write a program on the dimensioning of alloy parts.

Member of the MIT Faculty

Irvin:

After you finished your education, how did you prepare to find your first job?

Paté-Cornell:

I was lucky. I didn’t really prepare. I went to present my thesis work on seismic risk in an international conference in India. There, I met a group of professors from MIT who invited me for an interview and later, offered me a faculty position.

Irvin:

Interesting. At MIT, why did you select the department of civil engineering at the time?

Paté-Cornell:

It was the civil engineers who were interested in seismic risk and who had developed some of the best methods in risk analysis that I knew of and that fitted best the thesis work that I had done. And that was, for instance, because they were designing buildings to sustain earthquakes or any structure that had to sustain external loads.

Irvin:

So what projects did you work on there? What courses did you teach?

Paté-Cornell:

I started designing and teaching my graduate course in Engineering Risk Analysis, and an undergraduate course in Engineering Economy. At the same time, I worked on several research projects. One was on dams, and in particular the risk reduction effects of monitoring dams. And of course, I published several papers on my thesis work in seismic risk, one on earthquake engineering and the benefits of seismic reinforcements, the other on early warning systems at a time where there were several attempts to predict earthquakes.

Professional Career at Stanford

Irvin:

Why did you choose to move back to Stanford University after MIT as an Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management?

Paté-Cornell:

Because I was offered an appointment in a University that I knew, was growing in reputation, and that I liked a lot! The position gave me a lot of latitude in research and honestly, in part because it was freezing cold in Boston!

Irvin:

(Laughs). Was there anything that led you to move particularly back to Stanford where you had done your education?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, as I said, Stanford made me an offer in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management, which gave me a much broader spectrum of research opportunities. That is when I started studying for example, the optimization of warning systems for a broad range of applications beyond civil engineering.

Irvin:

Why did you decide to accept a visiting professor position during your sabbatical year at the Georgia Institute of Technology?

Paté-Cornell:

At Georgia Tech? Because I had lost my husband a few years earlier, and I was dating a gentleman who was living in Atlanta (we were married a few years later). But more academically, Georgia Tech is a very good institution where I was welcome by one of my colleagues in systems engineering and got a different perspective from what I had seen at Stanford.

Irvin:

Okay. And why did you also choose to accept a visiting professor position at New York University?

Paté-Cornell:

I just spent little time at NYU, but it was certainly an excellent experience. They have a very good department in Finance and Risk Analysis. The chairman was a friend who had invited me and I saw a different aspect of risk analysis, with greater emphasis on finance and methods that were more anchored in statistics.

Irvin:

Oh, I see. Then did you go back to Stanford after that?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes. Stanford clearly was and still is my academic home.

Irvin:

Okay. So you’re currently teaching “Engineering Risk Analysis” and a “Project Course in Risk Analysis.” What led you to develop these courses and what is exciting about them for students in this field?

Paté-Cornell:

These courses are both at the heart of my field and we cover a broad set of topics in risk analysis. They involve a mathematical part, a social science part, and practical applications. The exciting part of the project course is that students choose a wide range of subjects, for instance asteroid risks or airplane safety, and later, some of then decide to pursue a PhD in the field.

Irvin:

What has been your favorite part about being a professor at Stanford?

Paté-Cornell:

I would say working with my doctoral students. I’ve currently five of them, I just admitted a sixth one and our meetings are among the high points of my week!

Irvin:

What kind of projects have you supervised with them?

Paté-Cornell:

A very wide range of topics. Some of them focused on aerospace projects (one on the space shuttle), some on medical problems (e.g., anesthesia), others on human errors and their role in failure risks. Currently, their thesis topics range from the optimal architecture of satellites, to national security problems, cyber security, and some analyses of games, for instance in counterterrorism. It is an excellent team that could later contribute to academia, industry or government.

Irvin:

What are the primary research contributions of which you are most proud?

Paté-Cornell:

I think that from a theoretical perspective, it was the optimization of warning systems, and a model of integration of human and organizational factors into risk analysis. And then, I was very involved in two applications of risk analysis models: one to the heat shield of the Space Shuttle and one to anesthesia patient risk. That’s probably in part, how I got tenured, then later, elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Irvin:

In your opinion, what constitutes success in your job or in a career as a whole?

Paté-Cornell:

I think that it is really being happy with your life and finding the right balance between your job and your family. I had two children while the tenure clock was ticking. I enjoyed them immensely (and still do) but I wanted to keep going in my career and I am happy that it worked!

Irvin:

Have you felt happy with most of the jobs you’ve done?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, absolutely. I am sure that there were some lower points but I must have forgotten them…

Awards/Honors

Irvin:

In your career, you’ve received many distinguished honors and awards. Most recently, you received the Ramsey Award for the Decision Analysis Society. For what contribution did you earn that award?

Paté-Cornell:

It is a career award and it was for everything that I had done up to that point in decision analysis under uncertainty, including the integration of some very technical aspects of risk management decisions with socio-economic factors; but also some policy decisions involving intelligent adversaries. Again, it was for what I had done at that time and I hope that there is still a lot more to come!

Irvin:

Can you describe the work for which you received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for Risk Analysis in 2002?

Paté-Cornell:

It was similar in scope but I presume that it was mostly for the work that I had done on the heat shield of the Space Shuttle and on anesthesia patient risks.

Irvin:

Was that also what you worked on for the U.S. Air Force?

Paté-Cornell:

No. The topics were much more focused. I worked with the Air Force Science Board (essentially one summer) on specific Air Force problems.

Irvin:

So you also received a Teaching Award for graduate teaching at the doctoral level in June 2002 from the Stanford Department of Management Science and Engineering. What courses were you teaching at the time for which you received the award?

Paté-Cornell:

I was teaching my graduate course in Engineering Risk Analysis; but I think that this award was in large part for my work with my team of PhD students.

Irvin:

So similar to what you are teaching now?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, very much so. But the content of the courses has changed. I add each year topics of interest that cover new events new risks, new interests both mine and those of the students.

Irvin:

You were Chair of the Decision Analysis Society of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). Can you tell me about your leadership role in this position?

Paté-Cornell:

The challenge was to make sure that the Decision Analysis Society was seen as prominent within INFORMS, attracted the best speakers and inspired the best students. The Institute is a large organization but the Decision Analysis Society provides a unique forum to the scholars and practitioners in that field.

Irvin:

You were also President of the Society for Risk Analysis. Can you tell me about your leadership role in this position?

Paté-Cornell:

It was essentially the same role in a different organization. There the challenge for the Society was (and still is) to keep a balance in the mix of social scientists and engineers interested in risk problems at a time where quite a lot of engineers were leaving the society. The challenge is to find a common language and promote collaboration in a field where the effective resolution of important problems requires a large spectrum of skills and competences.

Irvin:

You were elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1995.

Paté-Cornell:

Yes. It was a great honor and an important point in my professional life. Looking back, I think that my membership in the NAE has really affected my career.

Irvin:

What has been so important about it?

Paté-Cornell:

The US NAE inducts a small proportion of all the engineers in the country and it involves a rigorous selection process. So, other organizations after your election, may consider that you have been somehow vetted and they tend to trust your knowledge of your field. It is also a wonderful forum to meet prominent people who have had fascinating careers, learn from them and get a wider picture of engineering at large. It is also a great place to identify discuss and address the challenges that society is likely to face, and to envision the role that engineers can play in facing these challenges. I was also elected a member of the NAE council which gave me yet another perspective on the organization.

Irvin:

How have you seen the organization change over the years?

Paté-Cornell:

Fortunately, the organization is evolving. For example, we are trying to get more women and minority members on board, and also to keep a proper balance between academic and business backgrounds among NAE members. But what this requires is that the members be encouraged to make nominations in these categories.

Irvin:

You were elected as a member of the French National Academy of Engineering as well. Can you describe the contribution for which you were elected?

Paté-Cornell:

It was very similar to my election to the NAE, based on what I had done so far, published, and presented in conferences. In my case, it also represented a link between the two institutions. Unfortunately, Paris is far away and it is not easy to attend the meetings…

Irvin:

You were a Conseiller since 2001. What is the role of a Conseiller?

Paté-Cornell:

It was simply a first step towards membership, telling the Academie des Technologies about my work to establish a link, and occasionally commenting on some of the issues that they were addressing. My membership in the NAE had attracted their attention. A few years later, I was elected and I have occasionally the opportunity to bring an international perspective in the debates.

Irvin:

Your service at Stanford and many organizations is in many roles. What led you to take on these roles, and what is your favorite contribution?

Paté-Cornell:

The motivation was to contribute to the best of my abilities to the institution to which I belonged. At Stanford, I was a member of the Advisory Board to the President and the Provost for hiring and promoting faculty members. Outside Stanford, I believe that it is essential that engineers participate actually a bit more than they currently do in government decisions. So the membership that I enjoyed the most was probably on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. But I have been –and still am- a member of several government boards that I enjoy very much.

Irvin:

What led you to serve on a series of Editorial Boards since 1981? What is the role when serving on an Editorial Board?

Paté-Cornell:

In general, on an Editorial Board, one helps review papers and encourage people to submit to the journal. So, the board members can influence the choice of topics and the quality of publications through the review process.

Irvin:

Can you describe your responsibilities and current project since 2009 as member of the Board of Directors of Energy Recovery Inc. (ERI) in California?

Paté-Cornell:

ERI is a publicly traded company that specializes in equipment for the desalination and purification of sea and brackish water, and now makes similar equipment for the oil and gas industry. As you mention, I am a member of its Board of Directors, which focuses on the governance of the company as in all publicly traded companies. Within the board, I am a member of the compensation committee, but I also bring to the debate some knowledge of risk and risk management, and the experience that I have gained through my membership on other boards or through my research at Stanford.

Irvin:

Can you describe your responsibilities and current project since 2004 as member of the Board of Directors at WingTech in California?

Paté-Cornell:

I am also a member of the Board of Directors. It is a position similar to that I hold at ERI, with the difference that WingTech is privately owned. Its US part was created by one of my former doctoral students and it specializes in health care policy analysis. As usual, the Board provides governance and advice to the company management.

Irvin:

Can you describe your role and contribution as consultant to NASA in 1999-2000 as Chair of the Review Panel for the Quantitative Risk Analyses of the Space Shuttle?

Paté-Cornell:

I had completed with one of my doctoral students the study that I mentioned of the risk of mission failure posed by the heat shield of the shuttle orbiters. My role was to explain how I did risk analysis for these complex engineered systems, and to advise people about doing it right when they decided to do it. NASA had done a quantitative risk analysis for the shuttle and the objective was to get to a comprehensive review of the process and the results.

Irvin:

And you said the NAE is the most important professional organization that you have been a member of, correct?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, it is correct and it is still one organizations whose annual meeting I seldom miss, and I especially enjoy since my husband, Jim Ellis, is also a member of the NAE.

Irvin:

What do you think you’ve gained from being a member of this organization?

Paté-Cornell:

Personally, I think that I gained some visibility and some credibility. I have also made many friends whose company and advice I very much enjoy. I also want to believe that I have made several contributions, as a member of the NAE council, nomination committee and now for the second time as chair of one of the peer review committees of the organization.

Irvin:

So now that we’ve talked about your career, one of the things we are particularly interested in for this interview is the challenges of being a woman in a STEM field.

On Being a Professional Woman

Irvin:

Have you ever experienced discrimination or different treatment based upon your gender in your career?

Paté-Cornell:

Probably, but although at times it bothered me, it did not stop me, and I tried to address the problems when I perceived them. At some point, for example, I thought that my salary was lagging; so I simply went to discuss the issue with my superiors. But I will never know what opportunities I was not offered as a woman and there is not much I can do about it, except keep my eyes open…

Irvin:

Was there any time when you doubted yourself and/or your work?

Paté-Cornell:

No! Or if I did I do not remember it… And I had great support at home: my late husband, Allin Cornell, was always there to give me the feedback that I sometimes needed.

Irvin:

Good. Do you feel any additional pressure to balance your professional and person/family life?

Paté-Cornell:

Of course, there were and there still are some pressures (our time is always limited). These were particularly intense when my children were small. But as I just mentioned, I had great support at home and my children are grown. Their father was extremely supportive and so the additional pressures were minimal. He was taking care of a lot of things at home and for the children so that I didn’t have feel some of the classic conflicts that involve a family life. Now things have changed but there are still some issues of balancing life! I am remarried to a retired US Navy officer who has many activities, including at Stanford Hoover Institution and on several boards. So we both travel extensively and the challenge for both of us is to spend enough time together!

Irvin:

That is wonderful.

Paté-Cornell:

You know, a former Provost at Stanford once said about young faculty members: “Marry well, and I don’t mean money!” I think he meant: “Marry someone who supports you”. And that is what I would say when asked: “Do you have any advice for a young woman on the faculty?” You want to be with someone who supports you, understands the requirements of an academic career, helps you raise your children if that is what you want to do, and does not force you to make drastic choices that would direct you one way or another if that is not what you want to do. And of course that is true for young men as well.

Irvin:

How have you seen women’s roles in STEM fields change over the years?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes, and among other things, there are much more women in positions of leadership in science and technology. So for example, the new Dean of Engineering at Stanford is a woman. The Presidents of several universities are or have been women. The CEO’s of tech companies are women. Their image has changed –no, you don’t need to look like a nerd!- but they are still lagging in numbers (for instance, on corporate boards).

Irvin:

Have you seen differences between the United States and France in this regard?

Paté-Cornell:

I don’t know because I have not been in the work force in France for a long time. So, I prefer not to speculate.

Irvin:

How do you think women can take on leadership roles in STEM fields despite perhaps gender discrimination?

Paté-Cornell:

Do a good job, be visible, and make friends in all circles! And be a true leader…

Irvin:

So now I’d like to ask you a few questions to reflect upon your career and give some advice before we wrap up.

Reflection and Advice

Irvin:

What was or is your favorite job or position that you’ve held?

Paté-Cornell:

It was probably that of Professor and Chair of Management Science and Engineering. I was the first to hold that position when we created the department by merging three departments (Operations Research, Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management, and Engineering-Economic Systems). I was in a unique position of having been a student in two of these departments and a member of the faculty in the third one. The challenge was to blend cultures and programs and keep some form of unity in a very diverse department. But then national ratings sent us very positive feedback, so I think we were, and still are, successful.

Irvin:

Why was this your favorite?

Paté-Cornell:

It was a real challenge –as most mergers, and especially perhaps academic ones- but as I just mentioned, these were three departments that I knew well because I had been in all three. It was good in the sense that by combining them we could create true intellectual synergies.

Irvin:

Have you seen any notable trends in education in general or in STEM education?

Paté-Cornell:

Yes. For instance, we have all heard of MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Course] and I think that basic courses will soon be available worldwide through the Internet. It seems to me that teaching in science and technology has become more and more interactive. It is also becoming more important in the evaluation of faculty performance and I think it is a very good thing. But perhaps most importantly, global STEM efforts have also broaden fruitful interactions among fields, for example, in engineering (or physics) and biology. Interdisciplinary studies have become increasingly important, blending techniques, fundamental knowledge and avenues to new discoveries and problem solutions. Another example is the fact that increasingly powerful computers have allowed the processing of larger data bases and that has allowed more powerful searches, simulation, or understanding of complex systems.

Irvin:

How do you mean teaching is becoming more important?

Paté-Cornell:

Teaching is given more weight when evaluating someone’s performance, especially at promotion time. It used to be that one made one’s reputation in research and that it was sufficient (except in extreme cases) to support promotions and tenure. It is no longer the case: research is still an important component, but teaching quality is also a factor. Now the question of course, is how to measure true teaching quality beyond students’ evaluations which are important but probably incomplete information.

Irvin:

How could your experiences help someone just entering or contemplating entering a STEM field?

Paté-Cornell:

Perhaps because I enjoyed what I was doing, my advice would be: do something that you really love! (whatever that is!). What makes your heart sing? What uses best your abilities and your qualities? Some people are happy focusing intensely on specific technical problems. Other prefer multifaceted issues and interdisciplinary work. Carve your own niche and do what you like and do best. Another aspect as we discussed earlier, is to combine your work and family life. So, I think that I can say, “You can have both with proper support” (of course, sometimes, you have to arrange for it). And my now grownup children seem to be pretty well adjusted….

Irvin:

How old are you children now?

Paté-Cornell:

My daughter is 30 and works for a small space company. My son is 33 and works in the international energy sector.

Irvin:

How do you define success not only in your career but also in life in general?

Paté-Cornell:

Being happy and having a balanced life! If I feel like playing the piano, I can play the piano (not well, but I enjoy it!); and if I have an idea at 3am, I can write it done and follow up on it later… But achieving your goals and feeling both emotionally and intellectually rewarded is I think a great part of success.

Irvin:

What are the steps that young people can take to prepare themselves for their first job after their education?

Paté-Cornell:

Pick something that you really like, and with a long-term view on it. But be flexible and seize opportunities when they present themselves even if they are not part of the initial plan. And make sure that you are using the right criteria when making fundamental choices. For example, for me, money was not the number one consideration (not of course, that it should be ignored and dismissed!). If it had been, I would not be in academia doing what I do. Some students want to have a career in industry, be innovative, perhaps start their own company, and they should. So follow your passion. That’s what I would say.

Irvin:

Is there anything that you would go back and change if you could in your career?

Paté-Cornell:

No, because I seldom look back. But honestly, I am glad I had the opportunity to discover MIT and another institution and I am happy that I chose to return to Stanford.

Irvin:

Well, that’s a good thing. What is the greatest obstacle that you’ve overcome in your career or in your life?

Paté-Cornell:

Losing my spouse after 30 years together. We were close and his illness brought us even closer. But…

Irvin:

What do you believe you are most proud of in your career and in your life?

Paté-Cornell:

Those are two different questions. In my career, it was to bring together the different fields that I needed to do the research that I do. In my life, it is to have a good, stable family life and many friends. As I said earlier, I got recently remarried, and my husband, who had also lost his spouse, now says jokingly “How can you be lucky twice in life?” But it is not entirely luck. To some extent, you make it happen.

Irvin:

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” What are your goals that you will be pursuing in the coming years?

Paté-Cornell:

You know, I really love what I am doing now, the doctoral students that I have, and the teaching and research that I do. And I also like very much the Board activities that I have. So, for the moment, I am content doing what I do and I wish to expand on some of those where decisions are actually made. But I also want to keep traveling with my husband and staying closely in touch with my children. My dream is to leave a legacy that my family, my students and my friends are proud of.

Irvin:

Is there anything I’ve neglected to ask you that you would like to add?

Paté-Cornell:

No. I don’t think so. I think we covered most of the story. One thing that I am glad I did was to come from France to the U.S., and that was entirely my decision, to apply for a Master’s at Stanford, and to get the funding that I needed to do it. That was probably one of the best decisions that I have made… Other choices were more obvious.

Irvin:

Was that a decision that was difficult for you to make?

Paté-Cornell:

No, not really. I heard about the opportunity. I was ready for a change. I remembered the address to which I had to send my first request and I did. And everything worked out well after that…

Conclusion

Irvin:

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this oral history interview. We will be contacting you to review the transcript of this interview so that you have the opportunity to make any changes or additions. Meeting you and speaking with you has truly been my pleasure. Thank you very much for your time.