Dell Master of Engineering fellowship marks a fifth anniversary
When Sam Dell ’65 M.Eng. ’66 first came to Cornell he expected to receive a B.Eng. degree at the end of five years of study. In his senior year, he learned that a restructured fifth year would earn him a Master of Engineering (M. Eng.) degree as well. “It was a big bonus to be an M. Eng. student,” he said recently. Among other benefits, “I could now be a teaching assistant,” which he became, for a statistics course in ORIE. Moreover the M.Eng. degree, built around a team-based project on a real problem for a real client, provided an opportunity to develop new skills.
As a member of ORIE’s first Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) graduating class nearly 50 years ago, Dell worked on a project to design a “computer-oriented preregistration system for Cornell.” The project report included an implementation plan and showed that such a system “may afford considerable economic savings as well as more satisfactory scheduling results.”
A successful career
Dell went on to a nearly 40 year career with what is now ExxonMobil. His first project used his ORIE background directly, employing a technique called dynamic programming to design aspects of a pipeline network for the Groningen gas field, the largest in Europe, which was then being jointly developed by ExxonMobil predecessor Esso, Shell and Dutch States Mines. “This was not a text book application, and we also had to worry about designing computationally efficient software,” he said.
The model required one of the largest computers available then, although now your cell phone has more computing capability. “When we were making actual runs to support investment planning we used the computer at the Shell Research Center for the computations,” he said, “since Esso lacked sufficient capacity in the Netherlands to do so.” Dell added that he “also learned a lot about presenting and selling my ideas, as the use of the model required buy-in from a number of different organizations based in different countries.”
Dell eventually moved up to general management, managing marketing organizations in Japan and the downstream in Norway and Finland. He also managed a project to implement large scale enterprise resource planning systems on ExxonMobil computers that were about a million times more powerful than the punch card-based IBM 360 model 40 for which his Cornell team’s preregistration system was designed.
Establishing a fellowship
Following his retirement from ExxonMobil in 2003, Dell and his wife Geraldine created an M.Eng. fellowship in 2008, that is awarded annually to an ORIE undergraduate who has “demonstrated strong ethical grounding and leadership capability, is a team contributor, and has a fundamental understanding of the application of theory to practical business problems.”
The Dells were motivated in part to establish the fellowship by Sam’s observation that while ORIE was sending a lot of very smart graduates to the ExxonMobil organization he joined in 1966, “some who were good at applying OR to real problems and some who had to struggle.” Beyond technical skills, graduates should be able to “understand organizational dynamics, write a report, make a presentation, and deal effectively with supervisors and managers,” he said.
In his career, Dell was also aware that “it is difficult to run a company if people are not going to be straight up, honest and above board,” he said. “Otherwise all of the management systems and controls break down. Good ethical behavior is also important from the standpoint of people’s personal values,” he continued.
Hence ethics, leadership, teamwork and the application of theory to practical problems are key concerns of the Dells, emphasized in many discussions with faculty, administrators and students and in the terms of the fellowship they have established.
“Sam and Geraldine took great care and thought in establishing criteria for the Dell Fellowship,” said M.Eng. Director Kathryn Caggiano. “In selecting award recipients, we have been particularly mindful of their wish to encourage and incent positive character development in addition to academic excellence. We are extremely grateful for their ongoing support and generosity,” she said.
In the five years during which the fellowship has been awarded, Sam Dell is “happy to see that there has been some change” in the program. For example M.Eng. Connect, a week-long program prior to the start of the first M. Eng. semester, now provides increased focus on preparing “job-ready” graduates.
The Geraldine and Samuel Dell Master of Engineering Fellowship has been awarded to
- Sam Schmitz ’08 M.Eng. ’09,
- Matt Robison ’09 M.Eng. ’10 MBA ’11.
- Christine Barnett ’11, M.Eng. ’11,
- Erika Hoppner ’13 M.Eng. ’13, and
- Julie Putzak ’13 M.Eng. ’14.
Both Barnett and Hoppner got a head start on their M.Eng. work in their final undergraduate semester, and so received one degree in the spring and the other in the fall of the same calendar year.
At the ORIE undergraduate commencement in Sage Chapel on May 26 Professor Shane Henderson announced that Hoppner and Putzak have received the Lynn C. Bussey Award for academic excellence. He also announced that the pair had been awarded the Dell Fellowship, and described the additional criteria on which it is based.
Here are profiles of the Dell Fellowship winners.
As the first Dell Fellowship recipient, Sam Schmitz was a member of a prize-winning M.Eng. team that carried out a project for MITRE, a not-for-profit organization that manages Federally Funded Research and Development Centers that support various federal agencies. The team used simulation and optimization methods to develop and evaluate a strategy for evacuating the Washington DC metropolitan area in the event of a catastrophe. Upon graduation Schmitz joined MITRE’s McLean VA office, where he has worked on a variety of projects and helps coordinate M. Eng. projects that MITRE sponsors.
Schmitz notes that “the fellowship certainly made it easier financially to earn my M.Eng. degree” in a program that “has a significant impact on my professional career.” Because the program “strongly promoted successful teamwork,” he developed the confidence to “speak up within the team and influence the direction” of his team projects at MITRE. “Moreover, some of the classes I took as part of the M. Eng. program have turned out to be some of the most applicable to my current job,” including an introduction to Principal Components Analysis, a technique that is used at MITRE ”to create aircraft trajectory models based on empirical radar observations.”
Schmitz remains engaged with ORIE, particularly with the advisor on his M. Eng. project, Professor Mark Lewis. Together with Matthew Olson of MITRE and Gabriel Zayas-Cabán, a Ph.D. student in Cornell’s Center for Applied Mathematics, they developed an approach to “mutual aid” among Emergency Medical Service vehicles among in municipalities in a region, in the event of a catastrophic or large scale event. Their work has now been published in IIE Transactions on Healthcare Systems Engineering.
“Getting the fellowship made it financial feasible to complete my MBA at Cornell at the same time as I pursued my M.Eng.,” said Matt Robison. After graduating with the MBA in 2012, Robison joined SD Retail Consulting, headed by ORIE alum Greg Rubin ’75 MBA ’76. Robison worked with various retailers on back room operations, product mix strategies, and store closures. He then worked on a project with Beats by Dre to build a royalty accrual tool, and has now Manager of Global Sales and Strategy for the consumer electronics company. There, he is responsible for steering the business analytics team, producing “thought leadership material” for the executive team, and developing the strategic plan.
In the short time since Robison completed his six years at Cornell, he has observed professionals working in various capacities, and has noted that many “lack coherent leadership skills, and an understanding of what it really means to lead.” He is enthusiastic about the role of the M.Eng. program in general and the Dell Fellowship in particular in helping students “learn what it truly means to lead.”
As an M.Eng. student, Christine Barnett helped create an Emergency Supply Chain Operations Evaluator, a simulation program that allows public health officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to test the efficacy of various plans to respond to public health emergencies such as an anthrax attack. She was also awarded a CDC grant to redesign the way antiviral medications are distributed during a pandemic, using optimization models and simulations to model the distribution and dispensing of the medications so as to address problems and shortages in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
The Dell Fellowship “allowed me to consider pursuing a Ph.D., without the burden of loans resulting from the M. Eng. program,” Barnett said As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, she has continued her involvement in applying operations research to healthcare problems with a thesis research topic that addresses new approaches to the early detection of prostate cancer. She will use simulation and mathematical modeling to investigate the health and economic implications of current and forthcoming biomarker tests, such as PSA, that are used for prostate cancer screening.
“Cornell has always stressed ethical practices in academia,” Barnett said, “and this concern will carry over to my career.”
One of the recent Dell Fellowship recipients, Erika Hoppner, has already completed the first half of her M.Eng. program, participating in a team working to forecast demand for Houston Rockets basketball games as a function of such factors as day of week, time of year, depth of season and win percentages, with a view towards helping the team optimize ticket sale prices. As a concentrator in Data Analytics, she already has a job, to begin in December, at the McLean VA headquarters of financial services firm Capital One.
“I think that the objective to have the M. Eng. program promote leadership and ethical business practice is a very admirable aspiration,” said Hoppner. As a teaching assistant in several courses, she has gained leadership experience, which has also been evidenced as President of the Cornell woman’s “club“ softball team. Hoppner served as a teaching assistant for both ORIE and computer science courses as an undergraduate and M.Eng. student - unlike in 1965, exceptional undergraduates are now eligible to be teaching assistants. She has also been active in the Society for Women Engineers.
After graduating with a BS from ORIE at the end of May, Julie Putzak will continue with her M.Eng. degree. “The Dell Fellowship relieved a great deal of stress for me about financing my M.Eng., “ said Putzak. As an engineering co-op student, she spent a semester and a summer at Logistics Management Institute (LMI), a Defense consulting organization chaired in the past by ORIE founder and former Engineering Dean Andrew W. Schultz Jr. At LMI, Putzak’s manager was Eric Gentsch ’80, M.Eng. ’81, MBA ’82.
This summer, Putzak will be an intern in the Buffalo office of Citibank, after which she plans to use her M. Eng. year to pursue the Manufacturing Concentration.