First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Elisabeth Paté-Cornell


Full name

Marie-Elisabeth Lucienne Paté-Cornell (a mouthful: Elisabeth Paté-Cornell is enough!)

Birth Date

August 17, 1948

What Award did you receive from IEEE?

The IEEE Simon Ramo Medal

Place of Birth

Dakar, Senegal

Where did you grow up

In many places. We moved about every 2 ½ years because my father was an officer of the French Marine Corp. Then my studies in math, physics, and computer science took me to different places on two continents. I grew up in Senegal as a small child, lived there again through junior high school; then in France, in a small town in the South West (Agen) when my father was deployed overseas, and back to France in La Rochelle, Nantes, Marseille, and Grenoble during high school, undergraduate and graduate school; after which, I came to the US to study and stayed there (mostly).

Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession

My father was an officer of the French Marine Corp, specialist of telecommunications (signal corp) and an electrical engineer. My mother had essentially a high-school education—and an IQ that would have been better used in other times. My two sisters have doctorates: Brigitte is an MD and a pediatrician, Veronique is a doctor of pharmacy.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

I wanted to be a surgeon, but was told by my parents that the studies would be too long and expensive. So I went into engineering, even though it was not considered feminine enough (“You will never find a husband if you continue”). I found two! And I mostly supported myself through outside work and fellowships.

What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?

I grew up in classic French military middle-class where education was highly valued but marriage was expected. We were supposed to marry officers, which I resisted successfully. And at the end of the day, having lost my husband Allin (an academic), I married a US Admiral! I have two successful sisters and a half-sister from my father’s first marriage, and 13 nieces and nephews.

Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)

I lived mostly by the water. So it was swimming and sailing, but also reading, horseback riding, and the girl scouts.

Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?

I was enrolled in a school of ballet and studied the piano until we had to leave France again for Senegal. Then, when I was out of the water, I had four years of judo. I was the mascot of the club, given that when I started, I was much smaller than the others. (I grew up to 5’7” after that.) I also played tennis (and still do to this day) and enjoyed riding my bicycle.

Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?

My first—and surprising—summer job was in a forge, so that I could gather data to write a piece of software yielding the loss of metal for a piece in the fire. That was unusual, as women were not supposed to enter that forge, but the company agreed I had to do it. I also worked one summer for a consulting firm as a software analyst, where I wrote another piece of software to simulate the movements of submarines for the European Navies. I also taught math to little girls, and I was a waitress, briefly, to make enough money to go back home from California!

Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?

Our vacations were mostly in my parents’ summer home on the Mediterranean and in a small village of the South of France. We took a few short trips, for instance in Africa, and my favorite one was driving with my parents through Senegal, British Gambia, Casamance, and (at the time) Portuguese Guinea.

EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?

I loved math simply because I thought it was fun; and physics; but also history, as I really enjoyed going back to another world.

Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?

Physical Education in the beginning, because, when I arrived in the public school in Dakar in 6th grade, I was too young and too small for my African athletic team, and they thought that I delayed them. So they proceeded to show me how to run “the African way” (which my children still find strange, if effective), climb a rope with my toes (I was never too good at that), etc. But I caught up fast and was pretty good in PE when I returned to Europe!

Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?

After studying math in France, I came to the US. At that time, Stanford was the best in the world in Operations Research (at least I thought so), and I needed some fresh air! So I was delighted to be admitted, left France for real, and stayed at Stanford through my PhD in Engineering-Economic Systems. After some time at MIT, I am still there on the faculty.

Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job

When I finished my MS at Stanford, I briefly returned to France where I worked for the metro of Paris, a unique way to discover that town! Back to Stanford, I did my PhD focusing on seismic risk, and I was then offered a position of Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at MIT. I loved the intellectual atmosphere, but found that it was really cold there, and after a few years Stanford gave me a position on the faculty as a professor. I was then Chair of Industrial Engineering before I founded a new department of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E), which I created then Chaired for 11 years, by merging IE, OR, and EES. I stepped down after I lost my husband, then married again, and I am currently Professor of MS&E, still at Stanford. A lot of my activity, however, has been in government (NASA, the White House, various government boards) and industry as a consultant or a board member.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

Yes, but I would not have really guessed where I was going. I had two babies when the tenure clock was ticking, and was hit by a tragedy when I lost my husband of 30 years, Allin Cornell, to lymphoma in 2007. But I never stopped working, reading theses on the floor of the hospital… In 2013, I married again with Admiral Jim Ellis, who was also a widower, and whom I had met on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?

Yes! Although I was not an official member, I found the IEEE Transactions to be a great place for major publications, for instance in cyber security.

You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?

It is a great honor and a recognition of my contribution to engineering in many different fields, from earthquakes to space systems, offshore oil platforms, anesthesia, counter-terrorism, and cyber risk. Few organizations can cover such a range, but IEEE could, recognizing the common theme: systems engineering and science.

What other associations have helped you in your career?

My election to the National Academy of Engineering, early in the game was critical, but also The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, NASA where I am now on the Advisory Council for the second time, several boards of the DoD, and also the Society for Risk Analysis and the Decision Analysis Society (I have been president of both), and INFORMS where I am a Fellow.

Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?

To all of them, I would say (and do say): Expand your horizons, make friends in many fields, and get the best graduate students you can. But to young women in particular, I say: Don’t delay having children if that is what you want. It will never be the right time, so it will always be the right time. And above all, do not quietly tolerate discrimination or sexual harassment.

Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?

Nothing I suppose, although I lived for a while through more discrimination than I should have tolerated, applying one of my favorite computer code formulae, “ignore and continue,” probably because I did not really have other options.

Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?

Probably my study of the reliability of the heat shield of the space shuttle. It looked daunting when I started, but it was the beginning of several serious and successful risk analyses at NASA, and itintroduced me to the world of space in which I did considerable work later from satellites to whole missions.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

Juggling at the same time a happy family, exciting studies, and when it happened, very difficult times as my husband was sick and died. I did not stop working, and with the support of friends, never doubted that I would survive.

Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?

I love traveling, especially in countries that I do not know. But also sailing (one of my passions), swimming, playing tennis when I can, and music: some piano and guitar, not that well, only when I am on my own!

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

I would say my marriage with two great husbands, and my good relationships with my two children, and three (Cornell) step-children. My daughter Ariane launches rockets for Blue Origin, my son Philip is an energy consultant for the Economist, and we are very close.

Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?

Great stews: curries, ratatouille, couscous (tagines), bouillabaisse, choucroutes, and a lot more, often French. But also a simple, lightly cooked omelette.

Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?

I have eclectic tastes (as my car radio stations can attest), from soft jazz, to country music, classical and baroque music, pop music, and especially classical guitar. One of my favorite composers is probably Shubert, but also the Beatles, a taste that I have passed on to my children! As I mentioned earlier, I play (badly) the guitar and piano, just to dream and relax.

Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.

My car! A 2005 Jaguar XK8 convertible. light blue, an elegant line, and it is irreplaceable! I bought one of the last of that series before Jaguar gave up on them.

What are three things people may not know about you?

That I am "a fish"—I could live in the water, as long as it is warm. That I love flowers and making bouquets. And how much I like to travel, especially with my children for Christmas, in places that they choose, that have to be different, tropical, and on the water. I suspect that they throw darts at a map until they hit something that meets the criteria!

That I love flowers and making bouquets.

And how much I like to travel, especially with my children for Christmas, in places that they choose, that have to be different, tropical and on the water. I suspect that they throw darts at a map until they hit something that meets the criteria!

Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)

Probably my late husband, Allin Cornell. We had decided, from day 1, not to collaborate, write together, or focus too much on our work, even though we were in similar fields. But it was wise as he was much better known than I was and he wanted me to succeed on my own. We had different backgrounds, great conversations, learned from each other and laughed a lot!

What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?

I feel lucky! I have many friends, whom unfortunately I cannot see directly for the moment, but that too shall pass. And a great husband! And how sorry I feel for people who are victims of the COVID pandemics, either from a health or an economic point of view. We are trying our best to support those who are helping us and need to work. Hopefully, the vaccination will help us getting out of this crisis.