Future Vision: George Pappas Ushers in New Era for ESE

Innovation is guided by instinct, and leading scholars learn to trust their own, turning curiosity into a driving passion. "You follow your nose—you do well at what you enjoy and you enjoy what you do well," says George Pappas, the newly named Chair of the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE).

Pappas has parlayed his own talents into a highly accomplished academic and research career, focusing on embedding intelligence into systems, including cars, airplanes and buildings. It was an Apple II personal computer that first piqued Pappas' interest as a young student in Greece. "I wanted to know not just how it worked for the user, but what was happening inside the box. When I started taking classes in engineering, I learned that computers were useful, not just for word processing and sending emails and playing games, but as a way of changing or impacting the world."

Inspiration and Collaboration

With early encouragement from his professors, Pappas earned undergraduate and master's degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. One professor said, "You have two options. You can pursue your interest in controls and systems or you can open a Greek diner." The choice for Pappas was clear, and he went on to earn a Ph.D. and completed a postdoctoral appointment at the University of California at Berkeley.

Pappas came to Penn in 2000, and quickly distinguished himself as a top scholar. Two years later, he won a coveted National Science Foundation Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Pappas also won the Ruberti Young Researcher Prize and has been named an IEEE Fellow. In 2008, Pappas was named the Joseph Moore Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering.

"Penn has been a wonderful place for me," he says. "As a professor, I've had the luxury of working with wonderful students on both the undergraduate and graduate levels, many of whom have gone on to amazing careers."

Doctoral candidate Chinwendu Enyioha chose Penn for his graduate education so he could work with Pappas. "Every time George opens up a new course offering he gets more students than he anticipated, and that's a testament to his talents as a teacher," Enyioha says. "He's also very good at letting students do their work independently. He gives them sound ideas and direction and then allows them to arrive at their own conclusions."

Pappas believes that one of the unique advantages of Penn is its size. "Intellectually, there are not many people who do exactly what you do here so it forces you to collaborate across disciplines and that is a good thing for both students and faculty."

Previously Pappas served as Penn Engineering's Deputy Dean for Research, focusing on developing those interdisciplinary connections. "I tend to think broadly about engineering, and enjoy the interplay of ideas, for instance, in robotics, where you bring together mechanical engineers with systems engineers and computer science programmers."

Charting New Territory

As Chair, Pappas' focus will be on continuing to foster those interactions as well as identifying areas for growth and new directions for investment, such as nanodevices and the recently added major in Networked and Social Systems Engineering. "My other priorities will be hiring, cultivating and retaining top-notch faculty to train the next generation of engineers, and working to translate what's happening on the research front into better educational programs at all levels, down to the freshman experience."

A pilot course for freshmen, ESE 111, will cover the scope and possibilities of electrical and systems engineering, from the foundations of how information is connected to physics through basic circuits, up through nanoscale devices and informational systems for energy, health and transportation. "The breadth of electrical system engineering is unparalleled, and we want our students to understand all of the opportunities in front of them and feel empowered." Pappas is also hoping to get undergraduate students involved in research earlier in their educational careers.

"Today, the strength of its faculty and the diversity of its research activities make ESE an intellectual hub of the School. It is home to about 25 percent of our doctoral students and is responsible for about 25 percent of the School's research funding. With George Pappas as Chair, the Department is clearly poised for great success and even greater stature," says Eduardo D. Glandt, Nemirovsky Family Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

21st Century Solutions

Pappas will continue to focus on his own research in three areas, including his work with the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings, a Federal Government-funded green building initiative at the Navy Yard; improving security in electronic systems in cars; and developing real-time traffic reports without infringing on individual privacy. "You might not think of energy or security as electrical systems problems but we have solutions for them, and this is the type of vision we want to see going forward, using our foundation and applying it in novel domains to address the modern needs of society."

Pappas' example continues to galvanize students not only in their research but in forging their own career paths. "When you first start out as a graduate student, you can only focus on a small problem, but you don't have a clue about how it fits into the bigger picture," says Miroslav Pajic, a doctoral candidate who has co-authored a paper with Pappas on wireless control networks. "George has helped me understand how this research can be used in the real world, and watching him work has inspired me to pursue a career in academia."

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "Future Vision: George Pappas Ushers in New Era for ESE" by Elisa Ludwig.

Interested? Learn more!

George Pappas faculty profile
ESE Department website

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