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Loose Ends: Andrea Goldsmith

Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied Science

By Pam Hersh

Andrea Goldsmith’s resume is intimidating – so much so that I almost persuaded myself to tune out rather than tune into a Princeton University Center for Jewish Life virtual lecture that featured her as a speaker.

Just like I try to exercise my body on a regular basis, I also try to stay in mental shape (particularly during these mind-numbing, brain-foggy pandemic times) by ingesting a regular diet of academic lectures. So I clicked into the Zoom lecture and prepared to feel inadequate.

Dr. Goldsmith, who formerly was an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, is the recently appointed Princeton University dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Her research interests are in information theory, communication theory, and signal processing, and their application to wireless communications, interconnected systems, and neuroscience. She has co-founded and served as chief technical officer for two wireless communications firms. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, two of the highest honors in U.S. academia.

The author of the book “Wireless Communications” and co-author of the books “MIMO Wireless Communications” and “Principles of Cognitive Radio,” she is an inventor on 29 patents. She received the bachelor, master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from U.C. Berkeley.

“Andrea Goldsmith brings tremendous expertise and leadership to Princeton,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “She is a brilliant and creative scholar, a successful entrepreneur, and a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the academy and industry.”

Even with my comparative mental flabbiness characterized by a research expertise in Cheetos and coffee, I still feel qualified to add a few more bullet points to Dean Goldsmith’s bio. I learned that in addition to all of her amazing professional accomplishments, Andrea is a down-to-earth, problem-solving, empathetic, thoughtful woman, the mother of two grown children (both embarking on engineering professions), daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and the wife of a San Francisco-based electrical engineer, who is the son of a holocaust survivor and grand nephew of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

But most impressively, Dr. Goldsmith, who merits a non-fiction biographical book rather than an 800-word column, is someone who believes her profession is as much art as it is science. She has been able to thrive professionally by never allowing herself to be intimated by the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.

In the lecture she gave a few weeks ago, she offered a glimpse of her educational and engineering philosophy and the factors in her life that brought her to where she is today.

Even though both her parents were Jewish, she was raised in a very secular environment and never embraced the religion until she became an adult.

“I attended my first Jewish holiday celebration – a Passover Seder – when I was 23 years old and my first Torah reading was in 2010 at my son’s Bar Mitzvah,” she said. But coming to Judaism as an adult, she feels she was better positioned to appreciate the value of some of the guiding principles and traditions of Judaism – the ethics, generosity of spirit, and resilience, an often heard, pandemic-era word.

“I saw very clearly in Judaism a history of people who did not get deterred by failure or challenges or other people’s opinion of you,” she said. In her profession where women leaders and mentors were scarce, Dr. Goldsmith often found strength in her Jewish roots. And her eagerness to embrace the technology of the future is tied to the past as articulated in the universality and constancy of religious traditions. “I love traditions, connecting me to the past,” and providing the security and historical perspective for her to go forward into future no matter what the perceived risks are.

As a renowned engineering innovator in the field of wireless communication, Dr. Goldsmith thinks some of her success may be due to two very different influences from parents – her father, a chemical engineer, and her mother, an artist.  She instinctively thinks out of the box – but those thoughts are tempered by a realistic assessment of what is technologically feasible. With a broad liberal arts undergraduate education, followed by a master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering, she is the living embodiment of STEAM. The acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, STEAM aims to integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) with the arts as a means of enhancing the learning experience while demonstrating how all things are connected to each other.

The appeal of wireless communication for her goes beyond a fascination with the intricacies of the technology. Her love of wireless communication is its link to humanity, thanks to the technology’s enormous potential to change the way people and things communicate. It is this element of humanity that is fundamental to Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and made it such a perfect fit for Dean Goldsmith.

Press materials announcing the new dean described SEAS as emphasizing the discovery and application of fundamental scientific principles to bring lasting benefits to society. A key to this work is the school’s collaborative culture. Faculty and students work closely with industry and with Princeton’s world-leading programs in the natural and social sciences, humanities and public policy. Graduates go on to become leaders in a wide range of industries, academic fields and public service.

Currently, Dean Goldsmith is working with the Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts on a certificate program in engineering and the arts. An example of what she hopes to achieve by an arts/engineering collaboration is the architecture/engineering certificate program. The certificate focuses on opportunities to respond dynamically to evolving global challenges, where elegant and effective solutions lead to more resilient and sustainable communities.

The key to a successful collaborative culture is diversity, said Dean Goldsmith. Racial, religious, ethnic and gender diversity achieves “diversity in thinking and approaches to solving problems.

“In my university, in my profession and in my startups I have found that diverse participants lead to a broader set of ideas and overall better outcomes,” Dean Goldsmith said. “Efforts to increase diversity must also ensure an inclusive and supportive environment to retain diverse members and maximize their success.”

By the end of her talk, I felt no intimidation, but rather inspiration and confident enough to audit an engineering course next semester. After all, I have mastered Zoom, so why not Electrical and Computer Engineering?

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