Honoring the past, creating the future: Watson College looks ahead to next 40 years and beyond
Three pillars for success have been students, faculty and research
When looking back at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science’s first 40 years, it would be easy to get wrapped up in a litany of key milestones, curriculum changes and significant discoveries.
All of those are important, but at its core, Watson College is a story about people — the hundreds of faculty and staff members, the thousands of students and alumni, and the relationships forged during the last four decades at Binghamton University.
Ask Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari about his memories since coming to Binghamton in 1988, and he will share the names of a dozen early leaders who built Watson on three pillars for success: students, faculty and research, all of them intertwined and supporting each other.
“Watson stands on the proverbial shoulders of giants,” he says. “A lot of what you see in terms of culture, productivity, teamwork, excellence, scholarship and an unwavering focus on enhancing education across the spectrum, from a first-year student to a PhD student, goes back to 1983. The idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ is the Watson culture today.”
When the Watson School started, the only undergraduates were junior and senior transfer students, joined by a small number of master’s and PhD students. Early projections believed that enrollment would top out around 500.
Today, there are more students just in the Department of Computer Science, where Jennifer Seibert ’23 earned her degree. As a first-generation college student from Long Island, N.Y., she didn’t quite know what to expect at Binghamton, but she knew she wanted to study programming and be part of the First-year Research Immersion program that would give her hands-on experience from day one.
During her time at Watson, she joined the engineering sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon, and in her senior year she served as president of Girls Who Code, which organizes a 10-week session of classes for middle and high school students each semester.
“I took two computer science classes in high school, and I was the only girl in the class,” Seibert says. “Sharing coding with younger girls is so different than my own experience at their age, and it brings together all of the women in the CS department.”
Encouraging more diverse enrollment has been a Watson goal from the beginning, but recent initiatives have strengthened the college’s commitment to women and students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Watson was the first school at Binghamton to hire its own diversity officer in 2014. The donor-supported Watson College Scholars Program, which launched in 2021, offers nontuition scholarships and academic support for 30 undergraduates, with more to be added this fall.
All undergraduates (except computer science) participate in the Engineering Design Division, a first-year program that gives a broad view of what Watson offers and teaches soft skills like communicating their ideas and working with others.
“About a third of students know what they want to be,” says Koen Gieskes ’04, MS ’10, EDD’s interim director. “They’re going to be a mechanical or biomedical engineer, and nothing really is going to sway them from that. Then there’s a third who say, ‘Yeah, I’m interested in this’ — then they get introduced to industrial systems or biomedical or electrical engineering, and they say, ‘Yeah, this is actually more interesting to me.’ The last third come in and think, ‘Yeah, engineering — let’s see what the options are.”
Peter Partell, MA ’97, PhD ’99, senior associate dean for academic affairs and administration, says that educating the wide range of students who come to Watson is essential to the college’s mission: “One of the things that we spend a lot of time thinking about is: How do we get students to where they need to be, but how do you challenge students who are a little bit ahead? And how do you keep all of that working in a way that makes everybody happy?”
Watson graduates have high success rates. According to the Watson Career and Alumni Connections office, 96% of undergraduates in the Class of 2021 found jobs or pursued higher education within six months of earning their degrees, with starting salaries around $80,000 a year. The numbers for graduate students are similar: 83% placement within six months, with salaries at $91,000 for those with master’s degrees and $104,450 for PhDs.
Seibert had a job waiting for her after graduation, working in New York City as a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase. Her advice to future students? “Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the resources that Watson has. I’ve had some amazing professors who have helped me, but I needed to speak up and ask.”
As Watson enrollment has expanded, more professors have been added to broaden the curriculum and keep class sizes low.
The biggest faculty growth in the college’s history is happening now. Watson added 14 new faculty members in fall 2022, and an ambitious SUNY-wide initiative that awarded $6.5 million to Binghamton University will mean up to 26 Watson hires for fall 2023.
SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Weiyi Meng, who chairs the Department of Computer Science, started at Binghamton in 1992. The term “email” was just entering the cultural lexicon, and the first web browser that included images was months away from being released.
Today’s CS courses cover cybersecurity, app development, machine learning, cloud computing and other topics that sounded like science fiction when Watson was founded.
Meng has spent his career at Binghamton — where colleagues generally have been “very nice” — and appreciates the successes he has seen during that time: “From the department to Watson College and the University, you can see that we are moving upward. That’s exciting! You feel like you are in a place that is always getting better.”
Since joining the Department of Biomedical Engineering in 2018, Assistant Professor Tracy Hookway has found the necessary balance between teaching students and leading her research into human cardiac cells. Earlier this year, she earned a $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation that will support her work for the next five years.
She is thankful for the collaborative spirit, not just from her BME colleagues and students, but also Watson College and Binghamton University as a whole.
“Getting this kind of support shows that the questions you’re asking are truly important, and other people see it,” she says. “That is a confidence boost.”
When the Watson School began, research expenditures probably hovered around $1 million — but an exact number is hard to pin down, and that uncertainty speaks to the shifting priorities at both Watson and Binghamton.
In 2019, Binghamton achieved Carnegie R1 “very high research activity” status, and Watson is a major contributor to this recognition. Over the past decade, Watson research expenditures — a key metric for the R1 ranking — have grown from $11 million in 2012-13 to $20 million last year.
Watson today has more than 100 faculty engaged in leading-edge research strongly aligned with national priority areas such as semiconductor manufacturing, flexible electronics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, health systems, biotechnology and clean energy.
Under Srihari’s leadership, Watson aims to double its research expenditures to $40 million in five years. “This will enhance our ranking and reputation as a premier research institution and help us attract top talent in both faculty and students, which will further accelerate our growth,” he says.
Associate Dean of Research Meera Sampath considers that goal “ambitious but achievable” and is spearheading efforts to establish strong institutional-level partnerships with academic, federal and nonprofit research and development organizations. She is also building more interdisciplinary collaborative efforts in line with emerging federal priorities.
Funding agencies today strongly emphasize “use-inspired research,” but the idea is not new at Watson. Through the years, faculty have excelled in developing solutions motivated by the needs of key stakeholders.
For instance, the Watson Institute for Systems Excellence (WISE), founded by Srihari as the Electronics Manufacturing Research and Services Group in 1989, helps industry partners and healthcare organizations solve persistent process problems and complex operational challenges.
WISE has over 30 industry sponsors, more than 100 funded graduate students, 16 faculty mentors from the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering, a research manager and a project staff assistant. Between WISE and other faculty grants, SSIE’s research expenditures are around $8 million, which accounts for 40% of Watson’s research expenditures and an impressive 15% of Binghamton University’s overall research funding.
According to SUNY Distinguished Professor and SSIE Department Chair Mohammad T. Khasawneh, who is WISE’s current director, WISE grows even without formal marketing for its services. Corporate sponsors and alumni share stories of success, and that builds demand.
“It’s a win/win/win situation,” he says. “It’s a win for the industry sponsor, because they get highly qualified students and the faculty members who support them. It’s a win for the students because the experience enriches their resumés. They get a tuition scholarship, they get a stipend and they work on real-life problems applying what we teach them in the classroom. And it’s a win for the faculty mentor, because we get high-quality students funded to work on industry-based research that produces high-quality journal and conference publications. It also makes us more effective teachers.”