Smith Gift: Impact and Initiatives

In January 2016, Robert Frederick Smith ’85—founder, chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners—and Fund II Foundation made an extraordinary combined gift of $50 million to the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the College of Engineering.

In recognition of Robert Frederick Smith’s remarkable gift, combined with his vision and leadership, Cornell named the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Smith's commitment created extraordinary opportunities in undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and diversity initiatives.

Learn more about the exciting initiatives happening in the Smith School:

Lance R. Collins, Joseph Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering

Thanks to the vision and support of Robert F. Smith ’85, we will create opportunities for promising students from all over the country, particularly African Americans and women, who excel academically but may not have the means to attain an Ivy League education, or who may not realize that their talents are best suited for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

— Lance R. Collins, Joseph Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering

Smith Initiatives


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Information on this Smith Initiative is coming! Check back for updates.

Bioreactors - The Future of Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering

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Professor Brad Anton led this Smith Initiative to acquire a suite of state-of-the-art bioreactors for the school’s Unit Operation Lab. Professor Matt Paszek proceeded to put them to use in the biomolecular engineering introductory course. In a four-part lab, he guided students through the design of DNA sequences of new proteins, transfection into bacteria, fermentation, and isolation of functional proteins as part of an NIH-funded research project on cancer metabolism. This lab, the first in many years for sophomores and juniors in the school’s program, was extremely well-received by the students. Professor Paszek was honored as the college’s Tau Beta Pi professor of the year and laid the groundwork for a broader set of biomolecular lab experiences in the curriculum.

Students in lab with bioreactors

4C: Cornell ChemE Crash Course

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After assisting faculty in core undergraduate courses in the Smith School, Akash Vaidya '19 and Joseph Hassler '19 found a passion for teaching. They also realized that engineering is not just science, but science plus design within the constraints of an application. With a team of three other seniors, one junior, and two sophomores, they developed an introductory course to teach high-school students engineering design in technological contexts.

With support from the Smith School fund, they hosted 20 local high school students over four weeks in spring 2018 to analyze and design materials for drug delivery, next generation photovoltaic cells, heat transfer systems, and even tackled a coupled set of unit operations with economic constraints.

The course encouraged critical thinking and collaborative learning, and introduced high school students to general engineering principles. The students applied what they learned to define problems, design experiments, and brainstorm creative solutions. They gained first-hand engineering experience and developed useful skills for learning, all while having a blast!

Going forward, the team aims to expand its reach to high schools located farther from Cornell in an effort to include more students from demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. As a multiple-week course that offers a broad perspective on engineering and its application to relevant challenges across fields, FourC has great potential to raise interest and promote diversity in STEM education.

Computational Optimization in Chemical Engineering Textbook

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This Smith Initiative supports the development of a new curriculum and a textbook on “Computational Optimization in Chemical Engineering.”

Professor Fengqi You launched two new advanced elective courses that provide an introduction spanning classical optimization, industrial big data analytics, and machine learning. The courses attracted large enrollments from across the College of Engineering. Professor You’s textbook on these topics—scheduled for publication in  2019—will fill a void in this important new area.

Graduate Alumni Reunion

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This Smith Initiative is paving the way for PhD graduates of the Smith School to return to campus, reminisce, and network. Founded by a committee current graduate students in the Smith School, CBE hosted the first-ever PhD Reunion in June 2018. 

Visit the Graduate Alumni Reunion web page for more information. 

PhD Reunion Attendees

Hydrothermal liquefaction on wastewater sludge

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This research project is a collaboration between the Tester Group, ESW Biofuels Project Team, and the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility to develop research capacity for hydrothermal liquefaction on wastewater sludge. This is an opportunity for undergraduate students to develop valuable practical skills while conducting research on producing valuable products from waste. 



Integrated Biomanufacturing of Therapeutic Proteins

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Professors Daniel and DeLisa launched a new collaboration to replicate the cell’s machinery to make glycoproteins—a crucial class of molecules for biopharma—on a glass chip. This “cell-free” platform could revolutionize our understanding of this important biomolecular process and open a new route for manufacturing. This project has now received funding from the National Science Foundation and involves a team of four PhD students from the two lab groups.

Susan Daniel

Keeping Ezra's Promise: Any person...any study

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In the summer of 2018, the Keeping Ezra’s Promise Program (KEP) hosted its second class of fellows, underrepresented minorities recruited by current Smith School PhD students from their undergraduate alma maters. The first fellows (summer 2017 class) also returned to campus in the winter to present their research at the school’s Graduate Research Symposium. Through fall 2018, the first KEP fellows will interact with their Cornell mentors as they prepare for graduate school or jobs in industry.

Led by Professors Susan Daniel and Paulette Clancy, KEP was a finalist for a competitive Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) award to expand its size and reach, and was eventually awarded $40,000 to mature the program. With matching support from the Smith School endowment fund, KEP is improving the climate for diversity in the school through an innovative set of programs involving both students and faculty.

Science Blender Podcast

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Behind every discovery at the Smith School is an engineer with an inspiring story to tell. Science Blender is a student-produced podcast that aims to tell those stories.

The idea was conceived by graduate student Aravind Natarajan, who not only wanted to highlight current advancements in biomolecular engineering, but also feature role models to inspire the next generation of engineers.

The first episode profiles Michael-Paul Robinson PhD ’18, who discusses his academic journey as a first-generation, African-American student. Robinson details how he was convinced to apply for graduate school by one of his mentors, as well as the pressure he felt to succeed as a first-generation student. The episode then turns to his work in the DeLisa Lab, where his research focused on how antibodies can be efficiently produced in bacteria.

The podcast examines the personal drive of each engineer it profiles, how they cope with the ups and downs of the research process, and the broader impact of the work and individual.

Graduate students serving as Science Communications Fellows are supported by the Smith School endowment fund to produce the podcast, which will release a new episode about every six weeks. The short-term vision is to continue profiling engineers within the Smith School, although the podcast’s producers aim to expand beyond chemical engineering in the future.

“It’s important for those in high school and undergrads who listen to realize a lot of people go through different types of challenges—maybe it’s race or gender or how they identify themselves. We want them to hear that and understand that a lot of people struggle with those problems and they can identify and say ‘maybe I can consider graduate school too.’”
—Joey Brown, graduate student and Science Communication Fellow

Science Blender is available on Stitcher, iTunes, Google Play, and at

Graduate student, Michael-Paul Robinson