Professor Kwong, the most recent hire in the civil engineering department, currently teaches a required course for civil engineering: “Engineering Mechanics.”
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in New York City. I got my Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering from the Cooper Union in 2009, my Master of Science in Civil Engineering from University of California in Berkeley in 2010, and my Ph.D. from UC Berkeley as well.
What did you like the most about civil engineering?
What attracted me to civil engineering is being able to apply theory to reality—in particular, designing and analyzing our infrastructure. It’s that middle ground between pure mathematics and pure engineering construction.
What is it like to be back at The Cooper Union having attended as an undergraduate?
It’s definitely refreshing. Many things are familiar, but at the same time, many things are new. When I attended Cooper, I took my classes in the old engineering building, so this is my first time actually working in the NAB. It’s also interesting and new to be on the other side as a teacher instead of a student. The core structure of Cooper as an institution is still familiar. Like current students, I needed to take physics and math during the first two years before diving into civil engineering.
Since you left Cooper, what have you done in the Civil Engineering field?
I attended graduate school and strove for both depth and breadth in the field. For depth, I took as many classes in structural engineering as I could in Berkeley—mechanics, analysis, design, etc. Then I branched out by learning about other topics such as statistics, seismology, earthquake engineering, etc. Getting a Ph.D. revolves mainly around solving one difficult problem, which takes an uncertain amount of time. I finally had a breakthrough with the problem I was solving about halfway through my graduate studies. After I solved it and got my Ph.D., I stayed as a lecturer at Berkeley for a year before coming back to the East Coast. It was always my goal to come back to Cooper ever since I left New York. After I had a conversation with Professor Jameel Ahmad during my senior year, I realized that my personality and interests are compatible with those of an academic. Since then, I did whatever was necessary to join academia.
How was life on the West Coast?
Very different from the East Coast. Like all experiences, it had its pluses and minuses. The weather is more or less stable which is a plus because I needed fewer resources to survive. I didn’t need to look into air conditioning or heat bills because the weather was never as extreme as it is here. Also, I lived right on campus so commuting was not an issue. If I want to live on campus in Manhattan now like I did in California, I would have to pay much higher rent. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to worry about rent in California. These luxuries permitted me to focus even more on my graduate studies. However, the biggest benefit of living in the East Coast was that all of my family and childhood friends are here. Leaving them behind for the West Coast was very hard and I’m glad to be back.
What did you miss most when you left Cooper and New York?
I definitely missed my family and friends, but I also missed the lifestyle unique to New York. Like the quote goes, “live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard, and live in California once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I missed the busy, aggressive lifestyle that we become a part of here.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
When I attended Cooper, I really enjoyed playing handball. I picked it up as a child in NYC and I actually started the Handball Club at Cooper. The torch had been passed down several times, but last time I checked, the club is currently inactive. I still play handball on occasion when I’m not in class. I also participated in the Culture Show as a student here—I was in the Hip Hop Club, the Martial Arts Club, and the Step Team, which was a big deal back then. Believe it or not, reading textbooks is also one of my favorite pastimes. I’m more interested in learning about topics from textbooks than from, say, a novel or magazine.
If you were to come back to the Cooper Union as a student again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think I would do anything differently. I had a great time when I was here and I enjoyed almost every aspect here. What I liked the most is that I had a good balance of hardcore, challenging schoolwork and stress-relieving extracurricular activities. I also had good friends in other disciplines outside of Civil Engineering.
Would you like to comment on your position as the first hire in the civil engineering department in 25 years?
I’m glad to be here, but I think the most important part of me being a professor here is trying to teach, guide, and inspire students as best I can. Teaching well is difficult and challenging. In my opinion, it is important to understand where students come from and then help them progress along the way. I think I bring that to the table since I was a student myself here not too long ago.
Any advice for our readers?
Students: believe in yourself and trust your gut; work hard and strive for excellence and you can achieve anything you want. ◊
Tell us about your background and how it impacted your career path:
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia with two siblings who studied engineering. I attended Smith College where I majored in English and Psychology. Originally, I intended to be a high school English teacher but then I joined Smith’s Residence Life, and my plans reconfigured. I was a Resident Director for a couple of years, and when I was in grad school at the University of Maryland College Park, I had a Grad Assistantship at UMD Baltimore County. I started working at Pratt’s Residence Life in 2006. I was in charge of the first-year students, and then transitioned to the Director of Special Projects. In the spring of 2015, I was appointed the interim Title IX coordinator. I remained the Director of Special Projects, and then I became the non-interim Title IX coordinator. In both roles I became a coordinator for student diversity initiatives.
What experiences at Pratt strengthened your passion for what you do?
When I was at Pratt, I became involved in a lot of different groups dealing with policy and the revision of our approach to policy. I think it is important to recognize that everything is not going to work the same in different environments. The government issues a lot of guidance and legal policy regarding Title IX and diversity, but how we interact with the students to ensure the policies are in place varies from school to school. At Cooper, a school that is so small where everybody knows everyone, our policy coordination will be different from a place like NYU where they have entire offices dedicated to one goal. In the development of policies process in Pratt, we went through a lot of iterations to ensure that our process aligned with the students. The process should meet the needs of the people involved with it, not just what the policy dictates.
“I really think it is important,
particularly in a college environment,
that all students feel welcome,
are included, and have their rights upheld.”
What brought you to Cooper Union?
I really like the idea of being able to dedicate full-time efforts to Title IX, diversity, and inclusion. My responsibilities revolve around creating a safe and healthy environment for all students and that is the entire reason I became involved in student affairs.
What are your goals at Cooper?
Right now my goals are really just to meet as many people as I can, so that I can understand what students need and want, and then develop processes to meet those needs. I have been approaching various student clubs and groups so I can meet everyone and introduce the concept of Title IX, student rights, and raise awareness about who the student body can go to if they encounter an issue. The next steps are developing more programmatic things and resources, figuring out the needs beyond Title IX because needs for Title IX are much more clear based on school policy than they are for other aspects of identity.
Tell us what you want a Cooper Student to Know About You:
I really think it is important, particularly in a college environment, that all students feel welcome, are included, and have their rights upheld. Everyone should know that they are entitled to that by being students here, and that there are a lot of people willing to help them if they are in a situation where people are not giving them all of their rights, including them, or making them feel welcome.
Any advice you would give to a Cooper Student?
There are a lot of people here who can help you and that want to help you. If you are in a situation where something does not feel right, then ask for help.
What is your favorite thing to do?
To bake. It is very relaxing, because it is very precise and methodical.
What did you do this summer?
I worked! Well, I also went to the beach with my family, on the Southern Coast of North Carolina near Wilmington. My family has been going there since I was a little kid. ◊
Tell us about your education and how you ended up at Cooper.
I went to a regional parochial high school in Bergen County, New Jersey. After that, I went to Cooper, where I graduated as an electrical engineer. I found out about Cooper because my father got his masters from Cooper in the 70s. I had a choice between Columbia and Cooper, but I wanted to be at a smaller school and go to the same place my father went to. Now here we are several years later, and I’m thankful for that decision.
How did you initially join the faculty at Cooper?
I joined the EE department as an adjunct in 1997. When I was a graduate student, I started teaching in the Retraining Program for Immigrant Engineers. It was started and funded by many philanthropic organizations to help Russian Jews who had to emigrate after the Soviet Union broke up. They were brilliant people and some had multiple PhDs, but their educational background didn’t translate to the workforce in the US. So this program retrained these people to have multiple skills so they can get work here; work that wasn’t well below their academic credentials. A number of us who taught in this program ended up as adjuncts through a process of choice and need by the institution.
What is your current role at Cooper?
My official title is Managing Director of the CV Starr Research Foundation. Cornelius Van Der Starr was the predecessor of AIG fortune tree. He retired at that company, which eventually became AIG, and they started a philanthropic foundation involved in a number of different sectors including higher academia.
In 2006, Cooper received $10 million to fund any labs, classrooms and facilities in this building; it was a capital campaign going on at the time. I was involved on the alumni side before I started here full time. When I started, one of my first tasks was to convert any of the research efforts that were going on into one unified effort under the CV Starr name it currently has.
What is your favorite part about being involved in your former college?
The last couple years have been eye opening and difficult. But even with everything going on, there’s something about being around young people that is exhilarating and irritating all at the same time. I’m also one of those that never really left Cooper; I was teaching and before I was a full time professor, I was on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.
I never had the down time to figure out whether it was good for me or not, but I do know that there is something about the opportunity to help students figure out what their next best step is. You can’t really beat that as a job. For me, it’s one of the best parts of the institution. It’s really one of the reasons that we have what we have, because each year we have an amazing set of undergraduate students that we put through the ringer day in and day out.
As a student, you were on the staff of The Pioneer, too! What was your experience at the time?
I was the business manager for two years, so when I was there we bought the first computer, (a desktop Mac) for The Pioneer. That was a big transition because we used to send everything out to be typed set, laid out, and produced. It was the late 80s and early 90s and we were spending a tremendous amount of money doing it. With the advent of desktop publishing tools, they made certain advances in the publishing arena back then. That was a fun job.
You mentioned earlier that you worked in the private sector. What was your experience like?
I finished both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cooper and then worked in the financial services space. I worked the IT side of the space for about three years for a software company, one that provided software data and feeds to the entire financial sector. My first set of jobs ranged from running around from trading floor to trading floor to doing the little things like installing software. I then went to work for a consulting firm just as the client-server market went to the delivery of what is now the internet. We did very well and I had some stock in that company. That was my first flavor of having options.
After I got married, I went to work with two other Cooper alumni on a private venture where we all had ownership stock in the company. I wish everyone can have that experience of going to go work for themselves and pay for themselves. It is tough to be an entrepreneur, but a great path to try. That is why I invest time here in working on things like that. After that was over, I did some consulting work and I helped the college with the search that was going on for my current role.
Any closing comments?
Cooper is more expensive now than it was for people from my day, and that’s painful to see. I think there is always a challenge to find a better path to make education affordable for anyone, especially for students that are bright enough and talented enough to be in a place like this. I think there are ways for us to make it better and bring that impact.
The only thing I would say is that everybody should participate in the community both during their time here and after they leave. You can’t claim to be part of the community if you aren’t constantly supporting it.
Time, effort, support, all those things are essential. Once we cut through all the noise of the debates, it comes down to how well we want to support our alma mater. I think it’s a cop out to want a clean slate after all we went through. Then, I’m disappointed that this is the virtue of the Cooper community. If you truly felt that way, then why not do something positive to change it. ◊
Can you give us a little background about yourself?
My academic background is relatively simple. I started physics at the beginning, and I got a PhD in astrophysics. I worked as a researcher in astrophysics for a few years in the evolution of galaxies and quasars. I published some articles on the subject, and then I gradually moved to philosophy. It was not a rupture, but a long transition, in the sense that even while I was working as a researcher in astrophysics I started giving conferences on the philosophical foundations of cosmology, and even modern science like quantum mechanics. This was my first serious approach to philosophy. Later, I moved a lot through different countries, and I finally arrived in Barcelona, Spain. There I started collaborating with the faculty of philosophy, teaching several subjects in the field of epistemology and the philosophy of science, at different levels. I came from science, and thanks to my experience as a researcher and an astrophysicist they opened the door to me. At the same time, I decided to simultaneously study philosophy, seriously. Even though I didn’t follow the whole curriculum of philosophy, indirectly I started on my second PhD in philosophy. I followed some courses on the curriculum, without being officially enrolled, and they accepted me as a PhD student. I started again. I wrote a master’s thesis on the concept of time – [translated] “The Concept of Time – Some Thoughts on Kant and Einstein.” It is sort of a comparison between idealistic philosophy on the conception of time and the theory of relativity. Thereafter, there was a sort of interruption in my research; it was after 2009, and the whole world was chaos. The effect of the crisis on Europe lasted several years, and I couldn’t continue my collaboration with that university, even though I had some level of responsibility as the director of a research group. I had to find some way to survive elsewhere, so I also worked as a highschool teacher for four years. I taught mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the same time. So I had to interrupt for a while my research work. Thereafter I started again, and instead of continuing my work, which is the natural thing when working on a PhD thesis, I decided quite naturally to focus on how artists express through art the conflict between the objective and the subjective dimension of time. Therefore my PhD thesis focused on contemporary art. The title is “Time and Temporality in Contemporary Art.” I moved from astrophysics to philosophy of science, and then again with a continuous transition to the philosophy of art. I think there is a continuous line in my academic and personal evolution. From a reflection on the evolution of the universe as a whole, I moved to the conflict between subjective and objective time, and I finally approached the very question of the expression and the perception of temporality. To add something more, I’d like to describe my personal evolution. It of course follows a parallel path, in the sense that I’ve always been moved by a sincere desire of exploring my internal restlessness. I’ve always been decided to focus on what I really consider the most worthy subject, in any situation. As you can imagine, my personal life has been the same way: very unlinear. I’ve been to many countries and done so many things in my life – not because I was tired and wanted to change, but because I am always looking towards the horizon. I always try to imagine the essence of things past the surface. I remember clearly that this is a personal attitude which I had even when I was a child. I think it’s simply the application of my way of being and what I’ve done.
How long were you in the field of astrophysics before you started to transition into the philosophy of science?
If you say “before you started the transition,” then it’s difficult to say, because my transition started even before concluding my first PhD in astrophysics. I can tell you sincerely that even while I was spending sleepless nights following my calculations about black holes, which I was very enthusiastic about, and moved by a sincere passion for, it was clear to me that what was the most worthwhile question was not the object of our gaze, or even our imagination, but the very fact that we, a small creature on a small planet called Earth, dare to imagine such a complex world. I was fascinated – and I’m not saying this now just because I’m a professor of philosophy – by the very fact that we were trying to reconstruct such a complex reality. Of course, I didn’t pretend, and I’ve never pretended, to reach the final, absolute truth. This was the biggest difference between myself and some of my colleagues. I had the impression from some of them that they pretended to arrive at the final answer about the big bang theory, or the nature of galaxies, or their evolution. To me, it was a very fascinating subject, and I put forth all my effort in order to make a worthwhile contribution, but it was clear that it was just speculation; it was a sort of fascinating play, but the truth, if it exists, was very far from our model. And it was just a model. Sometimes they work, in that the results of our model are not so far from what we observe, and we can compare observation to our model. It’s always distant though, the two cannot match. When it’s not so far, we can say “oh it’s not so wrong, our model.” Maybe it’s just by chance that we arrived at this similarity, but the nature of what we are trying to describe is beyond not only our mathematical capabilities, but even our brains’ capacity. I wasn’t worried about that. I thought, and I think, that it’s still worthwhile to put in that effort, because in trying to reconstruct such a complex reality we are going out of the cave, as in the image of Plato’s cavern. This desire to reconstruct the external reality moved us from a simply material, and trivial way of living, to a different attitude, with respect to all reality, not just with respect to astrophysics. That’s why it’s worthwhile, even if the truth, if we can say that, is very far from our models. Mine is quite a peculiar attitude when compared to many of my old colleagues, which is why I think now that I really had a philosophical attitude. Even at that time I was more interested in the relationship between we as a small creature, and the infinite.
If you could go back, would you do it in the same way, starting with the field of astrophysics?
I recognize that it has been a very long, and complicated path. If you think about which is the easiest, or more effective path to arrive as a professor of philosophy, I’d tell you to study philosophy at the beginning and go straight forward. So I have no doubts that what I have done has been much longer, more difficult, and riskier, but I would still do the same. I do not regret the effort which I lived. I say lived because it’s really something that I experienced in myself, deeply. I think that that kind of intellectual effort has been very useful. If I write as I do right now, it reflects my effort to try to synthesize the complexity of reality. When you have to manage so many things – I’m thinking of the evolution of galaxies, which is a subject in which you consider simultaneously in detail both physical processes and the overall structure of the universe – in your mind, and propose an original model, you need to be able to combine both an analytic and a synthetic way of thinking. This is also very useful for anything else you will do. So I don’t regret it. It took a long time to take this path, but I consider that, in everything we do, what matters is not the final result, but the path. Otherwise, we’d all simply wish to die because that’s the final end. Meanwhile, we have a lot of things to do, and the path is more interesting than the result. It’s difficult to say if I would so the same thing, because I’m so curious, and there are so many things that I would like to do, and I’ve had no time to do them. But if the question is “do I regret having spanned so many years studying astrophysics,” then the answer is no.
Can you tell us a little bit about your travels.
The easy part is to tell you that I’ve lived in eight countries. I started in Italy. Then I did my first PhD in Paris, where I did my research project. After that I spent one year in Israel, at a post-doc fellowship. After September 11th, the whole situation in the middle east was quite hot, so we decided to move to a totally different environment: Mexico. I spent three years in Puebla working as an astrophysicist, at the National Astrophysics Institute. Meanwhile, I have also spent almost one year, at different periods, in India, invited by another important institute of astrophysics. I spent three intervals of three or four months at a time in India. After that I arrived in Spain, and spent more or less ten months in Barcelona, and then, as I told you, I started working directly in the field of philosophy, teaching the philosophy of science, and another of my interests, the philosophy of music. And now I am here. I move a lot, following not only my internal curiosity, but also, and above all, my desire to confront myself with other cultures and realities. I never try to hold on to my fixed point of view when I travel. I try to listen, and understand different points of view. While I cannot forget that I am a western person, I really try to put forward an effort to approach, as close as possible, Indian culture, for example. I even studied Hindi, even learning how to write. I did it not only because of my curiosity, but that it is also a way to demonstrate by word and action that I wanted to approach their culture. That’s very useful; when I was on the road, I could totally change the relationship I had with a passerby just by speaking a few words in Hindi. I studied Indian music, and playing it was an incredibly emotional experience with another musician. I couldn’t forget my culture, and of course I didn’t want to simulate being Indian. I really wanted to move from my fixed point of view, to try to understand the other. After living in many countries, I think that it’s useless to look for the best place in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to find it in each situation of our life to learn and understand something. After my experience in many countries, in many situations, and even in many jobs – even my experience as a high school teacher, which was the hardes job I’ve done – I have found that it’s very useful to experience different points of view. It allows you to more easily understand, for example, the problems of teenagers. As a father, it’s especially important to put forward that effort. We can’t consider that the younger generation are… I don’t want to say stupid, but this is unfortunately the attitude – not my attitude – of many old, mature people. I think the opposite. Young people, even teenagers, have brilliant minds, full of enthusiasm, and curiosity, much more than other people. Unfortunately, they lose themselves for other reasons, but potentially you have incredible potential. My attitude has always been to listen to everybody, even in the case where my situation has been hard for other reasons. I’ve always tried to learn from every country, and every experience.
How has that experience been so far for you in the states?
Well it’s too early to tell so far. I arrived at the end of August, for the first time. I had just been here in May, to give my talk. So I can’t say anything.
What do you feel your role as a professor is for students here, and do you think that’s different from what you’ve seen abroad?
Here I can tell you something. Even though it’s been just one month, I’ve had a very positive opportunity of getting to know you guys, and the dynamic of teaching here. I really have been positively surprised. In Europe I taught in different universities, and there is a more passive conception of teaching. Sometimes students give presentations, but only as official, formal assignments. We don’t have this kind of round table, where we share our opinion, with the direction of the professor, who can moderate, or give hints. I think that’s very important, and I’m happy to have this opportunity. Not only do I think that it important for you, the student, to have the chance to be involved in the process of learning, in the Socratic sense. The professor is just helping you to get out from yourself what you already have at an intuitive level, or in ordering your thoughts. It’s important that one participates, and not just be a passive spectator of a play. It’s also more useful for me as a teacher, as I really have the opportunity, in both the ethics course and in the freshman seminar, to understand what you receive. I have in mind an idea of what I hope to transmit, but sometimes I’m far from reality. Having this chance to share, and participate together, even though we can’t always do that since I need to give formal explanations, is very useful to me in seeing what you receive in the discourse I try to organize. I can also learn from you, both because you can have interesting ideas that stimulate me to go in deep and understand something more, and because I can find tune and adjust my way of explaining something. Although it’s been just one month, it’s a really positive experience.
Do you have any advice to offer the students here?
I’ve just discovered Cooper students, with just a glimpse of an intuition of you. Up to now it’s been very positive, so it’s difficult to understand your weak points. I’m happy with both my ethics course and the freshman seminar. I haven’t seemed to see if there are weaknesses in you. I will just say what I say to all my students, at any level: try to be curious. Something I have experienced my whole life, even to be a good engineer, is that it’s very important to think about art, literature, and many other things. This can make you a better, more complete person, but also in your own work, this allows you to have a wider view. Einstein played the violin, and many other important scientists had other interests besides physics. To be a good physicist, even, you need to be involved in other kinds of thoughts. It is clear why it is so. If you just focus on one, specialized, thing, you’ll be good at that field, but as soon as the conditions are slightly different, you will be lost. I’ve seen this in some of my colleagues who have spent years studying one specific problem, with no idea of the whole picture. Once they took one step outside of their field, they couldn’t move. So it is important to study The Odyssey when you are a physicist. Reading an old text obliges you to learn how to analyze the different levels. Moreover, it gives you a wider view, besides making you a better person. If you want to be a good scientist, you first have to be a good person. So my advice is be curious, travel, and try to see a different point of view. Even if in the end you decide “I prefer my country, my city, my point of view,” that’s fine, but first you have to go out, live, and see the other perspectives. Later, if you come back to your own place, you will have a much wider viewpoint. Travel both physically, and mentally, and move away from a narrow point of view, which is a problem in both science and in society. There is an important American physicist, David Tong, who points out that one of the problems with contemporary science is the fragmentation of knowledge. We are choosing to be in subfields that are too narrow, and people can remain their whole lives in these narrow spaces. We need to open our minds, and Cooper students are in a very positive environment for this. You have a wonderful opportunity to open your mind, with students of the engineering school having to follow literature courses and philosophy courses. I think this is the best place for my conception of education, and maybe, on the other hand, it’s not by chance that that is so – perhaps I was chosen for my conception of education.
What are your hobbies, and how do you spend your free time?
I would like to have free time [chuckles]. If you want a simple answer, listening to music, sailing and walking. ◊
Meet Juan José García (Art ‘20). Photo by Wentao Zhang (ChE ‘19).
“I’m not willing to let go of being able to make art for the sake of art.”
Why did you choose to come to Cooper?
I was somewhat convinced I wasn’t going to get into Cooper and I was looking at fashion design colleges like Central Saint Martins and Parsons Paris. Ironically though, those fell through because I couldn’t afford them whereas Cooper offered me an amazing scholarship. It was just one of those things that make you think “oh, it must be a sign.”
How did you hear of Cooper Union?
My first contact at Cooper was actually one of my best friends, Valerie Franco. We were really close friends in high school and Cooper was her dream school. I remember when she was doing her home test, I was thinking, “I am not applying there—it’s too much.” Then senior year came around and as my art started to evolve, I decided that it would be a nice challenge to try the home test.
Where are you from?
I am Colombian but I came to the US when I was 12. I’ve lived in Orlando, New Jersey, and Miami. When I was 16, I convinced my mother to move north because she was having difficulty finding a job as she didn’t know English. I, however, stayed in Miami and attended Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH). I was confident that despite the fact that my mother moved away, my high school could help me achieve my goals in terms of college.
What did you think of the turmoil that happened at Cooper before you arrived?
I like that the politics makes you think about your own school and why these issues matter, especially when so many people can’t afford to go to college. It also starts a conversation about college and higher education in general, so it actually made me very happy to see that the students at Cooper are taking the initiative to think about what is going on and engaging in an active conversation.
What interests or inspires you in your art?
It varies. About a year ago I was painting portraits of myself with makeup on as a means of exploring gender identity and sexual orientation. About 6 months ago, I started delving into my experience living alone as a teenager and the associated feelings of isolation and displacement. Right before coming to Cooper, I was exploring ideas of human processes; to me, that is what art is about. It’s somewhat of a mirror reflecting how we interact as humans. Recently, I’ve been interested in the more abstract concept of exploring such processes and trying to map out these interactions.
So how does it feel to call New York City your home?
It’s funny, Colombia is a well-developed country but as a kid, there’s still that small third-world feeling of “America is America.” I always dreamed of being able to live in a city like New York but it’s still difficult to accept the fact that I am living here. It’s weird because when significant things happen in your life, it’s hard to accept that your dreams are taking form. I love it though, it’s my city; I’m not a naïve person and yet I feel safe.
What was your impression of Cooper Union when you first arrived?
I had an idea of what the people were like because of my friend but I had never been to the school until move-in day. I couldn’t make Admitted Students Day as I was preparing for my high school fashion show. Cooper is a very lively little hub and at first, I was overwhelmed just by being here (but in a good way).
Tell me more about your fashion show in high school.
DASH (NOT the Kardashian store) is a tiny school of 500 people in the middle of the design district in Miami. In sophomore year, students need to choose from five paths: fashion design, graphic design, industrial design, film and television, and architecture. I chose fashion design which came with a very rigorous workload. Our “senior thesis” was a project in which we had to design our own clothing and patterns and cut and sew our own fabric. My collection was a combination of my interpretation of modernity and my Colombian roots. It was a great experience and an amazing production and it’s unbelievable that the show is entirely student-run.
So has this fashion show experience
inspired you to continue pursuing fashion design during or after Cooper?
Everyone at DASH was going to fashion design schools and I applied and got in, but I felt that none of the schools were a perfect fit for me as they were either in a place where I didn’t think I’d flourish or were not in the urban setting I was looking for. When Cooper came about, I was very excited but it was conflicting because Cooper doesn’t offer fashion design—it’s just art. Then I sat down and really thought about it; people [from DASH] have done things that no one else has done before at DASH and I hadn’t seen anyone approach fashion design from an art background. I had my practice with fashion design so I know what the technical skills are but I wanted to explore this more artistic and experimental side, and see how that plays out. I’m not willing to let go of being able to make art for the sake of art. I can create my own path in a way that I haven’t seen people from my school do by going to art school and then figuring my way around and still do whatever I want to do. In order to create the kind of fashion design I wanted to make, I knew I had to be intense about my art. ◊
Meet Andrey Akhmetov (EE ‘20). Photo by Wentao Zhang (ChE ‘19).
Tell me about yourself.
I’m Andrey, born in Moscow and raised in Niskayuna in upstate New York.
You’ve had your first almost-full week of classes. What is your first impression of Cooper?
Honestly, it has been a very natural transition for me from high school to Cooper. A lot of my high school education was project based regardless of whether I was in or out of class and I spent a lot of time in labs working on my own projects. I feel that it’s the same way here but with much harder material. Obviously, the equipment is also much better than what I had in school.
What was your first impression socially?
Perfect fit for me. It’s a small school and it’s very easy to approach people. Many other schools I visited were depressing, sad and mechanical.
Glad to hear it. How was your summer?
I worked on a lot of personal programming, personal CPU design, and I was a student-IT worker in my high school. I designed a CPU using an FPGA (field-programmable gate array). An FPGA is a chip that is used for prototyping circuitry, which a user can program after purchase, hence the name. A lot of my work this summer was writing code for the FPGA and then testing to see if it does what I want. Unfortunately, it ended up being an unmarketable design, though it proved powerful as an academic learning tool.
Sounds like you have a good amount of computer engineering knowledge. Where did you pick all of this up?
Mostly self-study inspired by an electronics teacher in sophomore year who didn’t know what an FPGA was and asked me to figure it out. I actually learned about it, planned a lesson on it and the teacher still uses my lesson in class.
What was the hardest project, assignment or activity you had in high school?
I was really into competitive robotics. I was a founding member of the robotics club in my school and the lead programmer for all four years. For three of those four years I was also the only programmer. Interestingly, the guy that
invented the Roomba vacuum started funding our robotics program after the team was established. The hardest part was keeping hardware in line with software deadlines. It’s best described as playing Whac-a-Mole with bugs and workarounds. Actually, from all of those projects I started to develop a small optical navigation sensor for autonomous robots and I’m working on commercializing it now. The demand in robotics exists, and according to competitive robotics rules, they have to buy from companies, so I am working on becoming a one-person LLC.
What is your biggest regret from high school?
Ah, where do I start…probably not being broad enough in my academic interests? I focused too much on electrical engineering and robotics, and I only dabbled in mechanical engineering related work. I also regret not taking German earlier.
Okay, what do you look forward to most at Cooper?
I’m definitely excited for the academic side of Cooper. I’m looking forward to gaining real world knowledge. I’m also really interested in Formula SAE and the 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping club. I’m also currently applying to work in Micro-lab on the 6th floor. ◊
“I interned at Campbell’s Soup in Camden, NJ for 12 weeks and was working under the Soup Team in Research &
Development (R&D). My main project involved analyzing starches used in soups, and I worked to optimize conditions for the starches to make the processes more efficient.
In R&D, there is a part called Process R&D, and I worked with process engineers on a daily basis. I also interacted with product developers and culinary professionals, as well as my fellow interns! I was the only intern in Soup R&D though. I also worked alongside Science & Technology and Pilot Plant Operations divisions, both of which were very informative.
The work was really interesting and I liked that I was able to work in different environments: the lab, kitchen, and pilot plant, for example. The research I was doing was valued and would have an impact on the development of products! So exciting! It’s hard to compare it to what I do at Cooper. I was learning a lot of fundamentals and knowledge at Cooper, and I’d learn about the applications, but the internship was different. Working in industry gives you another experience, and I was seeing first-hand how my work could be applied in the real-world.
My favorite part of my internship was the people. Everyone was super friendly, helpful, and approachable! Whenever I had a question, whether it was something small or not, they were all supportive and willing to help. I wish I could have stayed longer at my internship and learned more—there is nothing negative to say!
I learned a lot over this internship, but I think my biggest takeaway was seeing what working in industry was like. This was my first industry experience. Previously, I’ve had summer research experiences at universities, but working in corporate R&D gave me a new perspective. I have a better idea of what I want to do after college, and I could see myself working in an R&D position and doing process engineering.”