This feature appears in the winter 2022 edition of Cornell Engineering Magazine.
Two-thirds of all commercial aviation flights are powered by engines for which Mohamed Ali, Ph.D. ’97, is responsible.
After earning his doctorate in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell, Ali joined GE as a researcher and found a professional home for life. Now vice president and general manager of engineering for GE Aviation, he leads GE Aviation’s commercial engine design, development, certification and fleet services. Ali’s team, a total of around 5,000 engineers located around the world, is also responsible for looking ahead and inventing the future of flight with a focus on safety and sustainability.
Ali is married, has three children and lives in Mason, Ohio. He is also a board member of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, which works to further the organization’s mission of promoting diversity and inclusion in engineering and science disciplines.
Can you tell us about your journey to this point in your career?
I was born and raised in Egypt. My father left when I was two and my mother raised me. In Egypt, being a single mother was rare and carried the judgment of society. My mother has always supported me and prioritized excellence in education, which provided a backbone to thrive and succeed. I moved to the United States to attend Cornell University and have been fortunate to have a career in a field that I am passionate about: aviation.
At GE, I have been educated and supported by many mentors. One piece of advice I received and that resonated was that, in order to be successful, I had to demonstrate confidence and a level of seriousness in myself. I couldn’t rely on people noticing my work, which I believed as I grew up. To grow and be successful, I needed to be able to connect with my colleagues. I needed to build a network of people who could learn who I was on a human level. People follow people to grow and succeed. Ultimately, our talents are what make us and our companies world-class. And talents produce products.
What makes you proud to be a Cornell alum?
Coming to the United States and finding an incredible mix of students from different nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds, I never felt like a minority at Cornell. I was surrounded by diversity and supported in an environment where I could excel.
I have fond memories of the faculty, including Richard White in civil engineering, Subrata Mukherjee in theoretical and applied mechanics, and Steven Strogatz in applied mathematics and computer science. Everyone opened my opening and I realized the diversity and depth of many fields. I loved the beauty of how simple mathematical formulas govern mechanics. I liked how this can be translated into applied mathematics and computer programs. I started to connect more with science and physics in general. And I was extremely fortunate that those professors guided me to discover those depths and breadths.
Cornell was one of the best places in the world to have a lifelong student mindset. I remember being told that it was very difficult to do well in certain classes. I have simply taken those comments from some of my colleagues as invitations to excel, and I think I have.
Cornell has also encouraged my passion for community service. As a student, I volunteered at a school in Lansing, New York, spending hours talking about STEM and career options. I didn’t have a car, so I took a taxi for each visit. With my student salary, it was expensive. But I was so excited by the promise of influencing future engineers and scientists.
After Cornell, going to GE was natural. GE has a culture of meritocracy that we value and appreciate, as well as an emphasis on diversity of thought that we are proud to foster.
What is the business case for diversity?
A representative workforce of the population is good for business, but what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity and creates an environment where all voices are heard. People who come to work as themselves have more confidence in picking up revolutionary ideas, guiding their careers, and taking others with them. When people focus their energy on work, instead of wasting time and energy pretending to be something they are not, companies and organizations thrive.
In the United States, our diversity is a unique advantage. I work a lot with the Society for Asian Scientists and Engineers to uplift others in my community.
In your current position, what do you think are the most pressing problems facing the next generation of engineers?
Sustainability will be a primary goal for all engineers around the world for decades to come.
The challenges facing the world today are ripe for innovative problem solvers. When engineers come together for a common purpose, it’s magical. I have found this to be especially true of aerospace engineers and our team at GE Aviation. If we can harness the power of a diverse group of engineers, we can change the world.
Recently, GE committed to a $ 100 million investment for 10 years in a program called Next Engineers, which is a college preparation program focused on increasing the diversity of young people in the engineering field. In a way, it’s an amazing continuation of the work I started at the Lansing school.
Can you talk about the future of sustainable aviation and the role you intend to play in it?
At GE Aviation we have thousands of engineers who wake up every day thinking about how to invent the future of flight. We know the aviation industry is at a pivotal time. We need to reduce carbon emissions to earn the right to grow.
GE and our partner in France, Safran, have joint engineering teams that have been working together since 2019 to mature and demonstrate open fan, hybrid electric, advanced materials, compact core and other technologies that will help redefine commercial aviation again. We see a future with more than 20% reduction in fuel consumption for the next single-aisle aero engine application by the mid-2030s, compared to today’s more fuel-efficient engines. It will also be ready for sustainable, hydrogen-compatible aviation fuel. That’s all in a program we announced earlier this year called RISE, which stands for “Breakthrough Innovations for Sustainable Engines” to accelerate innovations and meet the sustainability goals we as an industry have set for ourselves.
This is our North Star and our responsibility to this planet and our children.