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.

Guest Editors' Note The US Frontiers of Engineering Symposia Forge Ahead

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Author: Jennifer L. West and Timothy C. Lieuwen

The NAE typically dedicates the winter issue of The Bridge to papers from the annual US Frontiers of Engineering symposium, held in September each year (because of the covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 US FOE was rescheduled to February 25–26, 2021). We are delighted to be part of this issue, which presents a selection of papers from the 2020 and 2021 US FOE meetings that we chaired—Jennifer in 2020 and Tim in 2021. 

The Frontiers of Engineering symposia bring ­together a diverse group of highly accomplished, early-career engineers who represent the best and brightest from academia, industry, government, and nonprofit sectors across all engineering disciplines. In addition to the US FOE, the series includes bilateral programs with Germany, Japan, China, and the European Union. The events provide an opportunity for competitively selected participants to learn about cutting-edge and impactful developments and to network and engage in intellectual discussions crossing traditional boundaries in engineering.

When the decision was made in fall 2020 to postpone that year’s US FOE, we thought that surely we would be back to in-person meetings by early 2021. As we know now, that was not to be, so rather than postpone again, we held the meeting as a virtual event.

Frontiers of Engineering is a program where much of the magic happens beyond the technical sessions, during breaks, meals, and other times for informal exchange. This cannot be replicated easily in a virtual format, but the platform that was used allowed for people to move their avatars in “rooms,” which facilitated conversations, meet-ups, and the casual exchange that so often leads to new connections and collaboration.

The technical sessions at the 2020 US FOE covered the following topics:

  • Food for Thought: The AgRevolution Shaping What We (Will) Eat, cochaired by Lily Cheung (Georgia Tech) and Andrew Coughlin (Syngenta); talks covered plant genomics, bioinsecticides created from peptides, food safety, and automation in precision ­agriculture
  • Next-Generation Energy Systems Integration, organized by Jennifer Kurtz (National Renewable Energy Lab) and Javad Lavaei (UC Berkeley), with presentations on operating future grids with new AI tools, the water-energy-food nexus, and energy systems for Native communities
  • Engineering Innovation in Women’s Health, cochaired by Kristin Myers (Columbia University) and Melissa Skala (Morgridge Institute); speakers described an approach for cervical cancer prevention, computational models to predict changes in the female reproductive system, biomimetics for reproductive tissue engineering, and an innovative method for early diagnosis of reproductive disorders[1]
  • Plastics: Pollution Challenges and Innovations, organized by Anela Choy (Scripps Oceanographic Institute) and Jenna Jambeck (University of Georgia), with talks about mitigation of microplastic pollution on the Gulf Coast, environmental degradability as a design metric, and the world’s first plastic credit ­platform.

Three papers by 2020 speakers are included in this issue. The virtual meeting also included two poster and three breakout sessions. One breakout asked ­attendees to develop lists of the next Grand Challenges for Engineering (the NAE’s original list was announced in 2008), and others focused on disciplinary and session topic discussions. Each day concluded with a virtual happy hour. A list of the talks and speakers, abstracts of the presentations, and (where permission was granted) links to the videos of the presentations are all available at the US FOE website (

The 2021 US FOE, September 22–24, was a hybrid event at the National Academies’ Beckman Center, where the technical talks and discussions were live-streamed, and virtual poster sessions were held in lieu of breakout groups to facilitate interactions between the in-person and virtual attendees. Full vaccination and indoor masking were required for those attending in person. Thanks to the beautiful southern ­California ­weather, we were able to have breaks and meals outdoors.

The 2021 symposium featured presentations in the following areas:

  • Investigating the Final Frontier: Engineering the Future of Space Exploration, cochaired by Allison Anderson (CU Boulder) and Jessica Samuels (Jet Propulsion Lab), with talks on the James Webb Space Telescope, in-orbit assembly and servicing technologies, the Osiris-REx asteroid sample mission, and technologies for ensuring crew health and performance during extravehicular activities
  • Resilience in Pandemics: Data and Digital Infrastructure for Informed Decision Making, organized by ­Jessilyn Dunn (Duke University) and Jennifer Pazour (­Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), with a case study at Cornell University on reopening during the ­covid pandemic, application of process engineering’s continuous improvement perspective to pandemic-related decision making for schools, digitalization of biomedical manufacturing, and use of mathematical modeling to evaluate critical care protocols
  • Transforming the Climate Change Discussion: The Role of Direct Air Capture, cochaired by Ryan Lively (­Georgia Tech) and Mica Taborga Claure (­ExxonMobil), focused on this modality for reducing CO2, with talks ranging from DAC’s unique ­chemistry and engineering challenges from scale-up to who pays for it
  • Cybersecurity of Critical Infrastructure, organized by Kate Davis (Texas A&M) and Roman Danyliw (Carnegie Mellon), with a Department of Homeland Security perspective on this threat and talks on protecting industrial control systems and defense strategies for wind farms.

Five papers from the September 2021 meeting are included in this issue.[2]

We thank the sponsors of the 2020 and 2021 US FOE meetings: The Grainger Foundation, National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, DDR&E(R&T)-Laboratories and Personnel Office, Amazon, Cummins Inc., and individual donors. In addition, DARPA and Microsoft provided support for the 2020 US FOE.

The next US Frontiers of Engineering Symposium will be held September 21–23, 2022, hosted by ­Amazon in Seattle and chaired by Tim. We encourage you to nominate outstanding young engineers to participate in this program so that we can continue to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchange and promote the transfer of new techniques and approaches across fields in order to sustain and build US innovative capacity.


[1]  One of the papers from this section will appear in the spring 2022 issue of The Bridge, on Engineering for Women’s Health.

[2]  All the papers are presented alphabetically by lead author.

About the Author:Jennifer West (NAE) is dean of engineering and applied ­sciences at the University of Virginia. Timothy Lieuwen (NAE) is Regents’ Professor and David S. Lewis Jr. Chair in the School of Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.