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Q&A With Jelena Kovačević, Dean of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering

The IEEE Fellow talks about her career and her efforts to inspire other women to enter the field

5 min read

Photo of Jelena Kovačević.
Photo: NYU Tandon School of Engineering

THE INSTITUTEEngineers tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, such as bringing electricity to underserved populations and inventing life-saving medical equipment. But for others, like IEEE Fellow Jelena Kovačević, guiding the future generation of engineers is just as important.

“As a leader of a university, I have the opportunity to impact more people,” says Kovačević, dean of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

She, along with the deans from the City College of New York Grove School of Engineering and Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently talked during a panel discussion about how their universities are keeping up with changes in engineering.

Kovačević has been the Tandon School’s dean since August. She is the first woman to hold that position at the school, which was founded in 1854.

She began her career at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. After that, she became an adjunct professor at Columbia and a professor of biomedical engineering and head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Carnegie Mellon.

In this interview with The Institute, she talks about what led her to accept the position of dean and how IEEE has helped her in her career.

What inspired you to get into engineering?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved math. I was fortunate enough that I had parents who thought that was really cool. When I got a little older, I wanted to go into a field where I could do math for a living. Most of my friends who were good at math went into electrical engineering, then so did I.

I hate to say it, but I did not have some preordained plan. I didn’t really think it through. But people told me you use math in electrical engineering, so that’s where I went. I earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1986 from the University of Belgrade, in Serbia. There I discovered engineering was much more than just numbers. In the end, I found I could have an impact on someone’s life through engineering.

Why did you accept the position at NYU?

I was really blown away by the student body at the Tandon School of Engineering. I was inspired by how many first-generation and underrepresented students there were. All these people, with different experiences and backgrounds, came here to study a subject they are all passionate about.

Whenever I meet students, I think of them as my own kids. It’s important not only to make them responsible citizens and lovely humans, but also to make them feel supported. They had to face many more obstacles than I did during my time in university. I feel a responsibility to do something for others, and that led me to academic leadership positions.

I hold an open house once a month where students can talk to me about issues they are facing. I also meet monthly with student leaders to talk about how we can create a better learning environment and provide more internships and volunteer opportunities.

All 5,400 students motivate me to do the best job I can.

What are some of your goals for the school?

I have spent this past year working with everyone to create a strategic plan; it has crystalized into three pillars: research, students first, and community.

Engineers impact the world through the research we do. We want our research to address problems of societal importance to create healthy, secure, and connected environments around the world. We also want our cutting-edge innovations to be thoughtfully and successfully introduced into society.

It’s important to focus on students from the moment they step foot on campus until they graduate and beyond. We want to be a student-first community by improving affordability and being a nurturing home for all students. We are creating a flexible undergraduate education, focused on doing, critical thinking, and real-world experiences such as internships and research. We are also reimagining our master’s education by expanding its global reach and ensuring its relevance to industry. From student life on campus to the curriculum, there are changes that need to be made, and students are partners in helping us see what they need.

The final focus is to build a sense of community, not only among students and faculty but also with alumni and parents. It’s important for everyone to engage with us to help move our goals forward.

What challenges did you face as a female engineer, and how did you overcome them?

I came to the United States to attend Columbia and graduated with a master’s degree and a doctorate in 1988 and 1991, respectively. When I began my Ph.D., I noticed there were only a handful of women in the engineering program. At first I didn’t question why there were so few. At the University of Belgrade, there were a large number of female students. It was not an unusual thing for young women to choose this field.

When I was pregnant, a male colleague said to me, “Well, you’ll see once you have your baby, you’ll love it so much, you won’t want to come back to work.” I asked him why he came back to work after he had two children of his own, and he was taken aback. Why, I wondered, is my intellectual self any less important than his? Whether you come back to work or stay at home with your children is a personal choice, not a choice based on gender.

As the department head at Carnegie Mellon, students came to me with stories about microaggressions and sexual harassment they had faced, and I needed to address them. It became my mandate to be their advocate as well as to increase the number of both women and underrepresented groups and make the learning environment more inclusive.

I don’t have the blinders I had on when I first came to the United States.

How do you think your appointment will affect the gender gap in engineering and computer science?

I want both young men and women from all backgrounds to see women in positions such as a dean or a scientist. I think my appointment and the increase of women in these roles will help break the stereotype that only a certain type of person can hold these positions.

What would you say to a woman who is thinking about pursuing engineering?

It’s a fantastic field, and there is something for everyone. There is a place for someone who enjoys math, as well as for those who want to be in the lab. But just because things are better now doesn’t mean the environment is perfect just yet. You still may face microaggressions. But if you’re interested in this career, then pursue it. Facing these issues is a lot easier when you come into a classroom and half of the students are women.

How has being an IEEE member benefited your career?

For engineers in research, becoming a member is a no-brainer. It’s a natural part of our professional development. I got involved as a student member. I went to IEEE conferences where we would connect with other graduate students and professors, and we would present papers. This led to collaborations in research and brainstorming sessions about what we could do in the field to make an impact.

Throughout my 30 years in IEEE, I’ve served in a number of positions, including on the board of governors for the IEEE Signal Processing Society. I was the editor in chief of IEEE Transactions on Image Processing and associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing. I currently serve on IEEE Spectrum’s editorial advisory board.

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