From the neighbourhoods of Belgrade and a childhood love for puzzles and patterns, via Master and PhD degrees from Columbia University, working at Carnegie Mellon, the co-founding of a company and the spreading of innovation and knowledge at respected universities and conferences across Europe and the U.S., to taking up the reins of the Tandor School of Engineering, progress has been a long road for Jelena Kovačević, and an exciting journey
After 15 years at Carnegie Mellon, in April 2018 Jelena Kovačević became the first female dean of the Tandon School of Engineering, the engineering school at New York University, during its 160-year history – marking yet another major step forward in her career. This proud institution dates to 1854 and is rooted in the tradition of innovation, entrepreneurship and invention for the greater good of society, with a mission to use its engagement for intellectual, social and economic impact in the New York region, across the nation and around the world.
The New York University Tandon School of Engineering is the second oldest private engineering and technology school in the United States. Established as the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute back in 1854, Tandon graduates include numerous scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs, as well as over 2,000 CEOs and leaders of large corporations, university and academic leaders, even politicians and national presidents. There are four Nobel Prize winners among it’s past and present alumni and faculty members.
“People need role models, those with whom they can identify; that’s necessary, but not enough. Once in a workforce, women have to feel valued and respected.”
Talking about Jelena and her new role, New York University President Andrew Hamilton pointed out that being an outstanding academic is just one side to her personality:
“She impressed us not just with her scholarship, but also with her thoughtful approach to strategy, leadership, and execution; the future of the engineering profession and education; and the promise of Tandon’s Brooklyn location and NYU’s global outlook. We were also struck by her down-to-earth manner, her resolve, and – a crucial requirement for life in New York – her warm sense of humour.
“Jelena intuitively understands that this is a ‘moment’ for Tandon. And we have complete confidence that she knows how to build on Tandon’s momentum and the burgeoning local tech sector. One of NYU’s historic strengths is setting high ambitions for itself, and finding the right leaders to achieve them. In Jelena Kovačević, we have found just such a person.”
“I loved math I was a little girl; I was attracted to patterns, puzzles, anything I had to figure out. My dad used to play games with me that used to involve pancakes (‘your mum made five, your brother ate three, how many are left for you?’), leading to some very sweet maths! I studied electrical engineering in Belgrade because that’s where I was told I could do maths. Then I understood that I could do the math that has an impact on people’s lives. I had a fantastic education in Belgrade, from primary school onwards. I had inspirational teachers. I attended the Mathematical Grammar School, which allowed me to do maths to my heart’s content. I kept on learning and growing throughout that time, and that has never stopped. I love a challenge and love putting myself in conditions where I’m outside my comfort zone; this is where I learn.”But what about the moments from Jelena’s days in Belgrade that had an impact on her future career?
My dad used to play games with me that used to involve pancakes (‘your mum made 5, your brother ate 3, how many are left for you?’), leading to some very sweet maths!
But what about the moments from Jelena’s days in Belgrade that had an impact on her future career?
“As I said, I went to Mathematical Grammar School. That was (and remains) the school that produces the team for the Mathematical Olympiad. We went to university, and most of us ended up studying electrical engineering. They formed a special maths class for us because we were so advanced. We were taught by the best professors and followed a different schedule than the rest of the students. I entered the first exam (sort of like a midterm) confident, cocky even. I was from the Mathematical Grammar School – I didn’t really need to study. Well, guess what, I failed that exam, and they kicked me out of the special class. That was a rude awakening. I was used to maths being easy, and then everything else being easy. So, I worked and worked and worked throughout that entire year, harder than ever before. I aced the final exam (a year’s worth of material). Believe me, from then on, whenever I would feel that surge of arrogance, I would at least question it. There’s nothing wrong with confidence, just as long as I don’t let it derail me.”
“A couple of my friends from the Mathematical Grammar School and University went to Caltech in 1986; that gave me an idea that I could potentially do the same thing. At the time, of course, there was no internet, so we would go to the American Library (reading room), to get test prep books, get ready for TOEFL (Test of English as a foreign language) and GREs (graduate record examinations). I didn’t know much about American schools apart from the obvious things, so I applied to a few and eventually decided to go to Columbia because I also wanted to be in New York. I wanted to hear famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz perform live, but unfortunately, I didn’t manage to: he died in 1989.”
“It’s funny, but I felt at home in New York. It felt like Belgrade but bigger; messy, not super clean, but so alive!
When it comes to my first days at New York’s Columbia University, I was incredibly excited. Everything was new; we’d grown up watching movies set in New York, and now I was there. Eating from the little Chinese containers with chopsticks was a treat! Around Columbia, there were grocery stores and drugstores open 24/7, so we would go out and I would go shopping for food at midnight 🙂 I immediately found friends and even an advisor in short order, and that was the best decision I made. I was taken by his enthusiasm and creativity. He was just a young assistant professor, but today he’s the president of EPFL and one of my closest friends (Martin Vetterli). I also met my husband at Columbia; when my daughter was born in 1994, my husband was working at Columbia, so we would spend hours with her on its lawns. All in all, those were important years for me.”
“Are there some things I miss from Belgrade? Yes. I miss my family (extended family). My parents are no longer alive, unfortunately, but my mother’s sisters still live there and I’m very close to them. I also miss the Belgrade of my youth, but that Belgrade is linked to that formative time in my life, so it would be hard to recreate. If you’ve seen the TV series from that time in the ‘70s, Grlom u jagode [The Unpicked Strawberries], it takes me back to that Belgrade.”
“The world we live in is very different from that of my youth. Personal computers were just arriving (I wrote my diploma thesis on a Commodore 64), there was no way to search for something on the web because there was no web, social media didn’t exist, nor did smartphones, etc. This is all to say that the way we are connected today across the globe is much tighter and feels more intimate. Our students are entering the workforce and will be dealing with this global world; from collaborating with colleagues in distant locations to products that have to appeal across cultures. Universities are perfect vehicles for both educating students to navigate and be successful in this global world by modelling it within their environments (academics are a culturally diverse population), as well as by working with industry to develop technologies that can work and have an impact across the globe.”
My field of research is called signal processing; it is intimately connected to data science and machine learning. A signal can be an audio or video signal, but also a more abstract notion of a signal in a social network
“My field of research is called signal processing; it is intimately connected to data science and machine learning. A signal can be an audio or video signal, but also a more abstract notion of a signal in a social network (for example, your date of birth, the school you attended etc). The idea is to understand and represent those signals so that you can do something with them (process). For example, you can compress a video signal and transmit it, you can extract information from a medical image about cancer etc.”
“I moved into academic administration cautiously, as I had been extremely happy as an academic – I had my students and research; I was passionate about teaching and exploring new ways of doing it, while I was also writing books, which is something I love. But then I thought of something my dad often said, ‘Try it, and the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t like it, then you can try something else.’ So, that’s what I did, and I discovered that I loved it. I love the sense of service and the fact that I give back to the institution, to the people, to the community. I know it sounds corny, but that sense of purpose of doing something larger than oneself is what drives me.”
“When it comes to my new role at Tandon, I think an important question is what this means to the girls and boys out there. If they see that leadership is not tied to a specific gender, race, sexual orientation or cultural background, they will feel empowered to imagine themselves and strive for what they want.”
Many policymakers and scholars have noted that STEM fields have been predominantly male occupations – from their origins back in the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment to the present time. How can we inspire and give access to STEM to more young women?
“I’m not sure I have a great answer to this. Why is it that in countries like ours we have many more girls studying maths and science than in the U.S.? It starts at home, exposing your kids to everything and letting them follow their interests. But it extends to what influences them later, their friends, the media etc. If all girls see in magazines is how to have great hair and makeup (and don’t misunderstand me, I love hair and makeup, and romantic comedies) that’s what they’ll pursue.”
“People also need role models, those with whom they can identify. That’s necessary, but not enough. Once in a workforce, women have to feel valued and respected.”
The only thing that matters is what drives you internally. Find people you can trust, mentors, and go to them when you are uncertain or need a sounding board. Put yourself in situations where you can learn and never, ever accept that you are ‘less than’
“My advice to young women starting out on a career in science and engineering would be: If that’s what you love, go for it. The only thing that matters is what drives you internally. Find people you can trust, mentors, and go to them when you are uncertain or need a sounding board. Put yourself in situations where you can learn and never, ever accept that you are ‘less than’.”
It’s been a long road: from Belgrade and a childhood love for maths and puzzles, impacting lives through mathematics, searching for knowledge and researching through Master’s and PhD studies at Columbia University, many years at Carnegie Mellon, sharing knowledge through lectures, working with students and books, and taking over the helm at NYU’s Tandor School of Engineering – a proud institution with a tradition spanning over 160 years and past and present alumni and alumnae that include Nobel Prize winners, scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs, CEOs, leaders and event national presidents.
Like the threads of the Brooklyn Bridge’s steel cables, fabricated by a Tandon graduate in the second half of the 19th century, threads of knowledge, innovation and perseverance span across continents and times, from Serbia to America, from generation to a generation, from shore to shore, from story to story. It is those threads that keep the world in place as the road goes on.