Doubling Down on Interdisciplinary

For 35 years, the coordinated dual-degree Management and Technology Program has produced graduates at home in both the boardroom and the lab.

By Lee Gomes • Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan

 

Aside from having one of the most interesting jobs in the solar system, NASA space shuttle astronauts enjoyed the perk of being able to invite those who had been important in their lives to sit in a VIP area at the Kennedy Space Center and watch their launches. When Mission Specialist Garrett Reisman, ENG’90, W’90, turned in his invitees for the 2008 liftoff of the Shuttle Endeavour, for which he was a crew member, a prominent name from Penn was on the list: William F. Hamilton, CHE’61, GCH’64, WG’64.

Hamilton has been a fixture on the Penn campus as head of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, better known as M&T, the coordinated dual-degree program that is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

“He was a tremendous source of inspiration to me, and I wanted him to be at my launch,” Reisman tells Wharton Magazine. “In fact, the entire M&T Program was essential to my career.”

This is pretty much the view of all of the program’s 2,000+ alumni, most of whom have pursued more terrestrial pursuits than Reisman. They are found in every pocket of the economy, from Wall Street finance to old-line manufacturing to cutting-edge Silicon Valley technology. Everywhere they go, they are renowned as a result of their twin degrees for being equally comfortable in the worlds of blueprints and boardrooms.

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PRECOCIOUS STUDENTS

The versatility of an M&T’er was recently displayed by Danielle Rubin, whose employer, Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson surgical supply company, was contemplating a new line of antimicrobial products. To make a go-or-no-go decision, managers needed answers to questions that were both scientific as well as financial. What should be the precise concentration of the antimicrobial agent triclosan to make the product effective but also safe? What is the present value of the product’s future cash flows?

Most companies would divide that job among two consultants. Ethicon, though, tossed both to Rubin, who ran the experiments and the calculations before knocking out a 20-page report in a few weeks.

Oh, and did we mention that Rubin did all this while merely a summer intern? She’s back at Penn this semester for her junior year.

“There is simply no better place than M&T to study the two worlds [of business and technology],” she says. “I have loved both my business and engineering classes.”

In addition to its ability to produce stunningly precocious interns, M&T is unique in a number of other ways.

For one, students need to commit to M&T before they begin their undergraduate career, meaning they are signing up in high school. (Transfers after freshmen year are allowed, but are rare.) Because most of today’s high school students have trouble deciding on a mobile phone contract much less their college major, the fact that M&T students arrive on campus with such a crucial decision behind them speaks volumes about their seriousness and sense of purpose. The program aims for a class size of only 50 students every year and is one of the most competitive on campus.

As part of the application process, M&T alumni interview students. Roland Van der Meer, EE’82, W’82, is a partner with Fuse Capital, a Silicon Valley venture firm; before that, he worked in engineering at places like GTE Labs and Sprint; and before that, he was a member of the first M&T class at Penn.

“Obviously, all the kids we interview have great test scores and grades,” he says about the process of meeting prospective students. “But we look for something else: a passion, a drive. The program is really hard; it’s not something you can just ‘try out.’ And as a result, the kids we interview have an intensity and focus very early on.”

The second striking characteristic of M&T is that the program isn’t a typical double major, which is relatively common in academia and usually requires only a slight increase in course load. Instead, students receive two entirely distinct bachelor’s degrees, from Wharton and from the School of Engineering, each degree with a full course load (though the same set of liberal arts classes can be used to satisfy both). The program estimates that the majority of M&T students take 5.5 to 6.5 courses per term, versus the four to five courses per term that the majority of students in other programs at Penn take. Many casual observers might think that it’s asking a lot to have high school seniors commit to a program like M&T so early in their lives, but Hamilton sees the program as expanding its students’ options, not restricting them.

MandTspot FINAL

“Our applicants know that they aren’t going into the Romance languages. They have a devotion to math and science, as well as an interest in business,” says Hamilton, who serves as Wharton’s Ralph Landau Professor of Management and Technology.

“So we give them a chance to study in multiple fields and be exposed to a terrific breadth of choices. There is no reason that even the brightest student should know at that age what they want to do with their lives. We give them a way of finding
their passion.”

It’s not all a bruising academic grind. M&T students say the experience is extremely collegial, with participants seeking out and enjoying one another’s company. They are encouraged to band together as a group; students get priority in Ware College House (though not everyone selects this option and those who do can live on different floors). They can also take classes through other programs at the University. In addition to his core requirements, senior Jeff Grimes has explored Asian studies, film theory and art history. There are extracurricular events, notably special M&T-tailored visits from prospective employers, and the group doesn’t forget to have fun. Students organize outings for themselves; last academic year, they included ice skating, a trip to the zoo and a performance of Phantom of the Opera at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

 

THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND

Hamilton is, far and away, the person most closely associated with the program, as he has directed it since its 1978 origins and shaped the careers of its graduates, much like he shaped astronaut Reisman’s. The many disparate career blastoffs he has witnessed over the decades have been his greatest source of satisfaction, he says.

“We are an educational program designed to provide exceptional students with exceptional opportunities,” he says. “The experience of graduates is the most important indicator of how well we are doing.”

M&T’s origins date to the mid-1970s when Arthur E. Humphrey, HOM’71, then dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, asked his board of overseers to figure out what the role for a smaller engineering school on a liberal arts campus should be in the era of behemoths like MIT and Caltech.

The board’s answer: Be true to Penn’s interdisciplinary tradition and work to marry engineer training with the business discipline for which Wharton was renowned. Joseph Bordogna, EE’55, GRE’64, HOM’68, then the undergraduate engineering dean, took the lead in working out the details. (Bordogna’s esteem among M&T students is reflected in the fact that along with Hamilton, he was invited to Reisman’s Endeavour launch.) The interdisciplinary tradition continues to hold true even with the “technology” part of the program, as it emphasizes new fields like nanotechnology and bioengineering, which combine approaches from several traditional areas of engineering.

As the program hasn’t wavered in its core mission—and the group identity of its students and alumni strengthens—we are brought back to the driving force behind it.

“Bill Hamilton has been instrumental in taking and guiding the program from its inception. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” says Saikat Chaudhuri, ENG’97, W’97, adjunct associate professor of management, M&T course instructor and executive director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management. An M&T graduate himself, Chaudhuri adds how Hamilton remains as active as ever; the director recently led the fundraising work that set the stage for a major renovation and expansion of the M&T building beginning next year and the endowment of the program director chair. (See the article on page 56 for more information.)

 

Watch Larry Robbins, ENG’92, W’92, recount his experiences as a student and explain why he gave his $7.5 million gift to renovate and endow the home of the M&T Program.

 

INTERSECTING ALUMNI

Another program tradition involving the “T” part of the equation is that “technology” is left undefined for students. They can fill it according to their interests, which M&T students say is one of the things they most like about it. For former astronaut Reisman—who now works at SpaceX as a senior engineer specializing in issues such as astronaut safety —it meant specializing in fluid aerodynamics and eventually getting a Caltech Ph.D. in fluid mechanics. For current student Rubin, it means an emphasis on bioengineering.

Stephanie Chu, ENG’98, W’98, has an altogether different interest: systems engineering, especially as it pertains to supply chain and logistics. Following a stint on Wall Street, she made her way to her current dream job, working with the engineers on Amazon’s Kindle and helping them bring new technologies to market for future models of the popular electronic reader.

“Sometimes, you’re using off-the-shelf parts, like capacitors or resistors,” she says. “But other times, you’re working with engineers on invention barely out of the lab. It’s right at the intersection of technology and business.”

That phrase—”the intersection of technology and business”—crops up frequently when talking to M&T alumni.

Another example of someone at that crossroads is Matt Owens, ENG’10, W’10, GEN’10, executive director of Harlem Biospace, a biotechnology incubator on 127th Street in Manhattan. Its products are at the frontiers of life science: small molecule tumor suppressors, DNA markers for cancer treatment, neuron harvesting for research labs. It’s the sort of work that requires a comfort level with the contents of Nature and Science as much as with The Wall Street Journal.

“A key mission of the Biospace is bringing together a very diverse group of people, ranging from researchers at New York institutions like Rockefeller and Sloan-Kettering to investors and marketing professionals,” Owens says. “It’s a credit to M&T that I can feel comfortable jumping between these contexts.”

An especially expansive definition of “technology” can be found in the current work of Jeff Luhnow, ENG’89, W’89, who after a career at McKinsey & Co. and a number of dot.com-era firms, now finds himself general manager of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. Whatever its “Boys of Summer” roots, baseball is now as dependent on big data, “Moneyball” analytics as any company in Silicon Valley.

“What we are trying to do in sports is to predict the future,” Luhnow says. “And the more technology we can use to help with those predictions, the better off we will be.

“There is so much technology now that it can sometimes be overwhelming,” he confides. “But my years with M&T gave me the foundation to understand how technology in general affects the world. The world has changed a lot since I graduated, but the principles I learned then about how to apply technology are just as relevant today.”

 

A COMBINED COMMUNITY

M&T students mention that one of the program’s strengths is the way it opens the door to amazing internship opportunities. Google and Facebook aren’t just two of the most interesting companies in technology; they’re also where senior Grimes spent his two most recent summer internships. This past summer, he worked with the Google team responsible for improving the company’s Chrome browser.

“There is a huge alumni network out there, and a lot of them keep a special lookout for M&T grads in order to help them out,” he says. Born in the Bay Area, Grimes adds that the program is known on the West Coast, as well as back East. “Once they see it on your resume in interviews, it’s what people want to talk about.”

Indeed, as other universities begin adding programs that mimic certain aspects of M&T, Chaudhuri says, this large and continually growing alumni network will help the program maintain its leadership position.

For Hamilton, the fact that his students are now working successfully in everything from biotechnology to baseball is evidence of how they’ve become M&T’s backbone—something he tells anyone who inquires.

“I am often asked for the secret of the program; how it is that M&T has been so successful,” he says. “It’s simple: because we have such incredible students. Faculty members usually tell me that they can tell within the first week who among their students are from M&T, simply by their passion and drive.”

For their part, students turn it around and credit Hamilton with the program’s reputation and staying power—and much of their own professional and personal success.

“It provided me with such a tremendous opportunity,” says Reisman, who has the same poster of Earth over his desk at SpaceX as he did in his days at Penn. “I owe them so much.”

A Program Built on Shared Experiences & Generosity

The alumni of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology (M&T Program) all have a story about why they came to Penn.

Larry Robbins’ father was an accountant, so Robbins had a natural interest in business.His guidance counselor recommended engineering because of his analytical aptitude. M&T was the only program that allowed Robbins, ENG’92, W’92, to study both subjects in a cohesive, structured curriculum. He dove into the five-year program and a triple major, but he wasn’t just wowed by the coursework. He was  “pleased to be surrounded … by not only smart kids but good people who would challenge me, coach me, team up with me,” he says.

As a high schooler deciding on his next moves, Jeff Keswin, ENG’90, W’90, met with Professor William F. Hamilton, CHE’61, GCH’64, WG’64.

“To have an explicitly multidisciplinary program within a multidisciplinary institution was pretty compelling,” Keswin recalls.

The flexible yet rigorous coordinated dual-degree concept is what sold Jerome Fisher, W’53, when then-Dean Thomas Gerrity, W’49, L’52, approached him with the idea to endow it in the early 1990s.

“He presented the program to me, and I was very excited by the great possibilities, the quality of the faculty and the students, and that it was a model for the future,” Fisher recalls.

Interestingly, in Fisher’s day, he earned a multifaceted B.S. in industrial engineering—a Wharton curriculum in which “engineering” was more than a degree name.

In Ken Glass’ day, his ultimate decision was between MIT and M&T.

“[M&T] gave me the option not to have to decide what was going to be the rest of my life right then and there,” says Glass, EE’82, W’82.

Glass enjoyed both his engineering and business classes, but what surprised him was how one track complemented another.

“I look back and say, ‘Wow, that gave me a leg up,’” he explains. “The beautiful thing about it is, I was prepared because I had immediate credibility on both sides of the table.” From Bell Labs after graduation to Microsoft in the ’90s, Glass has served in business roles but has been able to communicate with technicians.

He is an angel investor now who returns every year to teach an M&T course and to meet admitted students and parents on M&T Day. He also chairs the M&T 35th anniversary committee.

Keswin’s story resonates with the same themes. He launched one of his current businesses, multibillion-dollar equity manager Lyrical Asset Management, by backing a friend and fellow M&T alum. In a hat tip to M&T, they describe Lyrical’s investments as “engineered for success.” Previously, Keswin co-founded and built Greenlight Capital, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds. He, too, feels the urge to “pay it forward” to the program, evidenced by the endowment of the Keswin Professorship for Hamilton’s successor.

Yes, Hamilton is retiring in 2015, and his former students have taken the call to honor their experiences with him and to ensure that his legacy endures.

Robbins, CEO of hedge fund Glenview Capital Management, is quick to credit the M&T program, a “badge of honor” on his resume, for his success in finance. He’s also quick to explain why he recently donated $7.5 million to endow the renovation and upkeep of M&T’s campus headquarters.

“When the opportunity came to honor Dr. Hamilton’s leadership and to improve the student experience … it was my honor to step up and make this donation,” he says.

—Matthew Brodsky

 

 

 

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