In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 25, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 4
The NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering symposium series forged ahead despite the challenges of the pandemic, with virtual and hybrid events in 2021. This issue features selected papers from early-career engineers reporting on new developments in a variety of areas.

An Interview with . . . Janet Hunziker, Director of the NAE's Frontiers of Engineering Program

Monday, January 3, 2022

Author: Janet Hunziker

RON LATANISION (RML): We’re delighted to talk with you, Janet. For this issue of The Bridge, featuring selected papers from the US Frontiers of Engineering symposium, and coming on the heels of the FOE’s 25th anniversary last year, we’d like to explore with you the origin of the program and your role in it.

JANET HUNZIKER: The program was approved by the NAE Council in 1994, and it was really at the ­impetus of Dale Compton, who was serving on the council at the time. The National Academy of ­Sciences had ­started a Frontiers of Science program in 1989. That program brought together nationally ­recognized—defined as those who had won prestigious academic awards such as the precursor to the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers—early-career scientists. Dale said to the council, ‘We need to do this for engineers,’ and they approved the start of a Frontiers of Engineering program. We received funding from the National Science Foundation as well as DOD, NIST, and the Engineering Foundation to launch the program, and we held our first meeting in 1995.

Bob Brown was the first chair of the US FOE—he served 2 years—and then he also was the first chair when we initiated the German-American FOE (GAFOE) program in 1998. So he was involved in the origin of not only the US but also the first bilateral program, with Germany.

Similarly, Rob Wagoner served as chair for the US meeting and subsequently as cochair for the FOE meeting with Japan (JAFOE) when we started that series in 2000. The US chairs and cochairs are always NAE members, and now they are often alumni too.

RML: How did you make the transition to setting up international programs?

MS. HUNZIKER: Those were at the request of entities in other countries. The German American Academic Council (GAAC) in Germany was already partnering with the NAS to carry out the German-American Frontiers of Science program, and that was going well, so they approached us to start the German-American FOE. When the GAAC dissolved, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AVH) took over as our partner in 2001.

RML: That is interesting. I was a Humboldt fellow early in my career and I spent a year in Germany with their support.

Let’s back up a bit and talk about the US version and the original concept. How did you go about putting together a program? Did Dale or Bob Brown or Rob Wagoner provide some help in identifying speakers and venues? How did that all come about?

MS. HUNZIKER: From the very beginning, Bob Brown was instrumental in helping us formulate the format for the meeting. The Frontiers of Science has eight sessions over 2½ days. They cover more science disciplines in the same amount of time but not at as deep a level. Bob said, ‘We are engineers, and we need to change this a bit.’ So we decided to cover four topics over the 2½ days, but with more speakers on each topic to provide a broader sense of the applications in each area.

The first step, then as now, is to select the topics. It’s fascinating to look back and see what was covered at the early meetings and what we are covering now. At the very first meeting, back in 1995, the session topics were Advances in Biotechnology (Frances Arnold was a speaker on directed evolution), Design and Manufacturing of Commercial Products, Engineering in the Urban Environment, and Information Technology.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): How were those topics selected?

MS. HUNZIKER: I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure that Bob Brown had a lot of input and perhaps Dale as well, and probably Bruce Guile, director of the NAE Program Office at the time.

One interesting thing about that 1995 session on IT is that David Patterson gave a talk that included a demo connecting to the internet. It was amazing for everyone.

RML: A real demonstration! I remember when Chuck Vest became president at MIT in 1990, he was the first MIT president to have a computer in his office. It rolled through the institute like a snowball—everyone started putting computers in their office. It really was a seminal moment. People stopped writing letters—it was done electronically. It changed our world—sometimes for the better, sometimes maybe not. It was certainly a major change in the way we function.

In the current context do you have a committee that helps you identify speakers and set the agenda in terms of topics?

MS. HUNZIKER: I get the ball rolling with the chair (or, in the case of the bilaterals, the cochairs) by sending a list of five or six possible topics; these come from various sources, including recommendations from previous participants. We conduct a survey after each meeting to assess how we did, and we also ask for suggestions of topics for future symposia. I look at what we’ve already covered—we don’t want to repeat the same topics—and the chair or cochairs provide input and their own suggestions. I run the final list by Al Romig for approval. With the bilateral planning we want to make sure that the session topics represent areas where both sides have expertise. We don’t want to pick a topic where one side would have difficulty finding good organizers or speakers.

Next we pick the session organizers, who are also ­early-career engineers, as this is a meeting organized both by and for that particular cohort. At this point we have a substantial alumni group, and I typically go to them first to find session organizer candidates. The job of the organizers is to plan the presentation ­topics and recommend speakers. Since they’ve attended a meeting, they know what works in terms of the kind of talk we need for a technically sophisticated but nonspecialist audience. For the bilaterals, each session has two ­organizers—an American and someone from the other country (or region, in the case of the European Union)—and two speakers from each country. The two sides work as a team to plan their session. For both the US FOE and bilateral FOEs, the final list of speakers and topics is approved by the symposium chair or cochairs.

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RML: Is there is an effort to align the bilateral meetings with the US meeting in terms of topics?

MS. HUNZIKER: They’re separate. Each meeting has its own organizing committee, which serves for one meeting, and the topics are considered separately. Occasionally there’s some overlap; for example, we’ve recently had quantum computing as a session topic at a US meeting and a bilateral meeting. But the participants are not the same so this is not an issue when a topic is covered at two different meetings.

RML: How are the cochairs identified?

MS. HUNZIKER: As I mentioned earlier, FOE chairs and US cochairs are always NAE members. Every year after the NAE election the Membership Office runs a list of members under age 50 or 55, and we select from that. There are now 140 NAE members who are FOE alumni—they participated in an FOE meeting and were subsequently elected to the NAE—so they bring that experience to their service. There are another 22 NAE members who became involved with the program after their election.

I don’t want to imply that participating in Frontiers meetings is a track to election, but I am always delighted to see FOE alumni on the list of newly elected NAE members.

RML: I would say that those elections are a testimonial to the fact that FOE attracts really good young people. When I look at what they’ve accomplished, they are truly deserving of membership.

CHF: I have a couple of questions. Are the FOE participants who go on to be elected to the NAE predominantly speakers or participants or is it a mix?

MS. HUNZIKER: It’s a mix. I haven’t looked at that particular datapoint but because there are more general participants than speakers or organizers, I would guess that more general participants are subsequently elected. There is a competitive selection process for the US FOE meeting, which then trickles across to the bilaterals because we don’t do a separate nomination and application process for those meetings.

CHF: That was my second question: How do you identify the general participants (as opposed to the presenters)?

MS. HUNZIKER: For the US FOE, NAE members get an email from the president in mid-February, asking for nominations for that year’s US FOE meeting. In addition, we reach out to chief technical officers and VPs of corporate engineering and research, federal lab directors, deans of engineering, and others who are not NAE members. We also look at recipients of distinguished awards. After the nomination period closes, we contact the nominees, tell them about the program, and ask them to apply to attend. Being nominated does not mean that one is automatically invited. This year we had 360 applicants for 83 slots.

RML: That’s fantastic.

MS. HUNZIKER: Of the 100 attendees for the US symposium, we strive to have about 45 from industry, 45 from academia, and 10–12 from federal labs.

CHF: Like representation in the NAE membership. How are the applicants selected? It sounds a little like college admissions. And do you seek representation among the participants to align with the topics or are the participants from a much more general pool?

MS. HUNZIKER: In some ways it is similar to what I think college admissions officers go through because all the applicants are so strong and deserving to be invited. The organizing committee assists in the selection, and the chair makes the final selection based on their inputs. We want attendees at the meeting from all engineering disciplines, even if their expertise is different from the session topics. That’s actually one of the nomination criteria: we want people who are interested in what’s happening in areas other than their own and willing to engage with people who are doing that work.

The goal of the program is to get people out of their silos for 2½–3 days and make connections that they can’t make at their professional society meetings where they’re with people in the same field.

This is really where the ah-ha moments come, while listening to a talk about something very different from their own work but seeing where there are synergies in terms of techniques, approaches, and challenges. But it’s not just sitting in an auditorium listening to technical talks. A lot of the magic happens during the informal times such as breaks and mealtime. That’s one reason the pandemic has been really hard for us; we’ve moved to a virtual platform that captures some of the elements of the meetings, but it’s not the same as talking face to face. The FOE meetings are about having a conversation with someone you wouldn’t meet in any other setting and making that connection that leads to new ideas and possible collaboration.

CHF: I was involved in the Frontiers of Science Symposia for several years at its outset, from 1989 to 1994 or ’95, after which the program was moved out to Irvine and I declined to move across the country. What a rewarding and exciting experience it was to be involved with those. Janet, I hear the same level of excitement and enthusiasm in your voice as you’re describing what it’s like to be at the FOE events.

MS. HUNZIKER: I went to the Beckman Center to observe a Frontiers of Science meeting in 1994 so I would see what a Frontiers meeting was like. I remember you there.

RML: In principle, the meeting should provide a broadening influence on the thoughts of these early-career attendees. If it were only related to their specialty, they can go to a professional society meeting and get that. This should be mind expanding. From people I know who have been participants, the reviews are raves. They just love it. Many of them keep in contact, which is even more important, and get to know one another. I think that is a testimony to the vision and the effectiveness of what you do.

MS. HUNZIKER: To that point, a participant at the first German-American FOE, in 1998, told me a couple of years ago that she’s still collaborating with a German colleague she met at that meeting.

RML: That’s great. How many bilateral meetings are there? And what other countries are involved?

MS. HUNZIKER: We have active programs with ­Germany, Japan, China, and the European Union. The program with India (2006–14) has been on hiatus because we haven’t been able to raise funding for it.

CHF: How did the other bilateral symposia emerge? You indicated that the Germans approached the NAE; what about the others?

MS. HUNZIKER: My recollection is that the NAE may have been looking for an opportunity to do something with the Engineering Academy of Japan. This would have been in the late 1990s. The Japanese were receptive, and that program started in 2000. For the India program, we were approached by the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum. After the first Grainger Foundation grant came in 2008, we were able to start programs with the EU and China.

Actually, before the EU program was started, we had been approached by France and by some other countries about starting a bilateral with them; but there is a limit to how many bilaterals we can do, so working with an ­umbrella organization of European academies of engineering was a better approach. I have to give credit to former NAE executive officer Bill Salmon (1986–98) for finding us a European partner for the EU-US meeting. ­Euro-CASE[1] organizes inputs from the European academies, and for the individual meetings we work with ­different national academies of engineering. So far we’ve partnered with academies in the UK, France, ­Finland, and Sweden, and for the 2022 and 2023 ­EU-US FOE meetings, we will work with the Slovenian Academy of Engineering.

CHF: For the EU symposia, is there consideration to not include Germans since they have their own FOE program?

MS. HUNZIKER: Since the bilateral with Germany was our first, and the Humboldt Foundation wanted to maintain it, we have continued to have a separate GAFOE meeting after starting the EU-US FOE. ­Germans are involved with the EU-US FOE as well through acatech’s membership in Euro-CASE.[2]

RML: How do you see the future evolving with ­Frontiers? You mentioned that there’s a limit to how many bilaterals, for example, are manageable, unless you extend staff, I would guess. How do you see the future in terms of where you would like to go programmatically or in terms of interactions with other nations?

MS. HUNZIKER: Funding is the biggest constraint. This is a good chance for me to call out FOE’s wonderful sponsors. A grant from The Grainger Foundation provides annual core support for the program with additional funding from government agencies such as NSF, DARPA, and DOD and from individual contributions. We also get in-kind support when companies, universities, and federal labs host meetings. And this year we received grants from Fran and George Ligler and from FOE alum Rob Wagoner and his wife Robyn. The Liglers’ grant is going to support alumni engagement, and the Wagoners’ gift is in the form of an endowment. We’ve also launched an alumni challenge, again thanks to the Liglers and the Wagoners.

You’re right that adding more programs means adding staff; we’re pretty maxed out in terms of what we can do now. I think we could add another program with current staff, and we’re considering one called Five Eyes ­Frontiers of Engineering. It was suggested by Al Romig and would involve the five English-speaking countries that exchange national security and intelligence information: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and the US. We’ve had a couple of meetings about this with the national academies in those countries but have delayed fundraising until after there is a clear path to in-person meetings.

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It would be great if we could restart the India-US program because there’s tremendous talent in India, and the five meetings we held with them were wonderful opportunities to bring together engineers from our two countries.

CHF: What about South America or Africa?

MS. HUNZIKER: The NAS and NAE worked ­together to hold a Brazil-US Frontiers of Science and Engineering in 2014. It was a one-off initiated and supported by NSF. The champion of that program left NSF, and we were unable to get funding for a second meeting. I think the National Academies would be very interested in initiating Frontiers-type meetings with Latin America on a regular basis.

We’ve tried to raise money to start a program that would involve maybe four or five countries in Africa, but that has also been very difficult. Covid put a brake on that as well, but even before that it was difficult to raise money for it.

The Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is staffed by Dalal Najib in the National Academies’ Policy and Global Affairs Division, and they just held their eighth meeting in November.

CHF: Turning to a different topic, in the past few years I think you’ve really expanded your alumni outreach activities. Can you tell us what you do for your alums?

MS. HUNZIKER: I think alumni engagement is really important. We don’t want Frontiers to be just a meeting that people attend for 3 days and then that’s it. We want to build a network of engineers and keep them engaged both with the NAE and with each other. One way to do this is by using the FOE alumni database to find candidates with a particular expertise for NASEM study committees and other engineering-related outreach. In fact, after this meeting I have a call with an NAS staff officer about some names to put forward for a study. The directory allows FOE alumni as well to access the database in the same way.

On the Frontiers of Engineering website, ­, the Alumni Spotlight features six alumni, and twice a week we post news about recent developments in the research and technical work of our alumni. Sherri Hunter is responsible for the Spotlight and Latest News features (among many other things) and I want to credit her for maintaining those elements of the website. We issue a newsletter twice a year and invite FOE alumni to the NAE’s regional meetings where they can connect with other alumni and NAE members as well as participate in interesting technical programs.

I also want to mention the Armstrong Endowment for Young Engineers–Gilbreth Lectures. John ­Armstrong provided an endowment for this lectureship that is awarded to four FOE speakers who give their presentations at an NAE national meeting. At each FOE symposium we ask the attendees to vote on who gave the all-around best presentation, and that informs our selection of the Gilbreth Lecturers. One great thing about the national meeting is that local high school students attend, so we try to select speakers and topics that are particularly interesting to students and may inspire them to embark on engineering careers.

Finally, The Grainger Foundation Frontiers of Engineering Grants provide funding to US FOE attendees for joint research projects, and this is a great mechanism for supporting collaboration within the alumni network.

RML: I suspect there will be readers of this interview who may be interested in supporting the FOE. Could you give an indication of what the costs are? Or what’s the best way to approach that?

MS. HUNZIKER: The program runs about $1 million a year. Thanks to some of our NAE members and ­others, we have held meetings at corporate, federal lab, and university sites. For the US meeting, in particular, that saves a substantial amount of money. We’re going to hold the 2022 US FOE at Amazon. We were supposed to be at CU Boulder for the 2021 US FOE but they will host in 2023 instead. We are very grateful for that support.

RML: So anyone interested in providing support could simply reach out to you?

MS. HUNZIKER: Yes, or they could contact the NAE’s development officer, Radka Nebesky ( And many wonderful NAE members give to the program through Development Office solicitations for the NAE. We appreciate their gifts!

RML: Since the program was launched, I wonder what sorts of trends you’ve seen in terms of the participants? I’m thinking of current concerns about gender and equity and diversity, for example. Have you seen growth in the number of women, for example, among the participants? I would be delighted if you said yes because I have four granddaughters and I hope some of them are going to become engineers!

MS. HUNZIKER: I’m so glad you asked that question because at the US FOE for the past 3–4 years, we’ve had 48–49 percent female attendees.

RML: That’s fantastic.

MS. HUNZIKER: Yes, it’s really great. A couple of years ago, an attendee wrote on her postmeeting ­survey, “This was such an amazing experience. I walked in and there were all these women there! That’s never ­happened to me at an engineering meeting before.”

And when we held the meeting at Boeing in 2019, the dinner speaker, Joan Robinson-Berry, who at the time was vice president of engineering, modifications, and maintenance for Boeing Global Services, said, “I look across this audience and I see America.” That is what we should be aiming for: a group of attendees who look like America. It is not enough for us to simply match the percentages in engineering for certain demographics. The most recent and current US FOE chairs, Jennifer West and Tim Lieuwen, respectively, have been very attuned to this.

In fact, at the September US FOE there were a number of attendees from R2 schools, which typically haven’t been as well represented at the Frontiers meeting.

CHF: You mentioned the representation of women, what about Black and Brown people?

MS. HUNZIKER: The percentages are probably equivalent to this generation in the engineering profession. So we’re meeting expectations there. We’re reaching out with a number of mechanisms in the nomination process to try to get a diverse nomination pool.

CHF: So that might include outreach to HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions?

MS. HUNZIKER: Yes, as well as affinity societies. And a couple of alumni are diversity officers now at their institutions and are in positions to assist in this regard.

RML: I think we particularly need to engage more women—of every race, ethnicity, background. When my wife sees something technological that doesn’t ­really seem appropriate, she says, ‘You know, if there were women involved, they wouldn’t have made that decision.’ I think she’s right.

We are a diverse country but we seem to have a lopsided view on how to roll out technology and what technology is useful. We are a diverse population and yet we are making decisions on a much more limited basis. So I think what you just said, Janet, is really important.

MS. HUNZIKER: In closing, I want to reiterate that the FOE program is all about the people and the connections, both those that the NAE makes with the alumni and those they make with each other. In some cases attendees have said their participation was life changing in terms of the direction of their research and the connections they made. This is so beneficial for the engineering profession.

RML: Yes, it is. The Frontiers of Engineering is really an important part of the culture of the NAE, and you do a heroic job in managing it. I thank you on behalf of all the members—as well as many people who are not yet members and many who have not even been participants yet.

MS. HUNZIKER: Thank you for this opportunity to talk about the program.

This interview took place November 9, 2021. It has been edited for clarity and length. Names in bold are NAE members.


[1]  The European Council of Academies of Applied Sciences, Technologies, and Engineering

[2]  acatech [sic] is Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering.

About the Author:Janet Hunziker is director of the NAE's Frontiers of Engineering Program.