Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, delivered the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science’s 2023 Doctoral Ceremony on May 11. UPenn Engineering graduates, family, and friends were on hand for the celebration held in Philadelphia.

“Thank you, Dean [Vijay] Kumar … and to the 2023 graduates of Penn Engineering, it is my distinct honor to welcome all of you into the community of scholars,” said Collins. “Penn Engineering has prepared you well for the journey. There are the obvious things required for a successful career: ambition, integrity, diligence, honesty. But there are also what I refer to as ‘hidden variables’ that are less obvious and yet can have an outsized impact on your career.”

Collins’ address focused on three important “hidden variables” that can define a career: identifying impactful research, self-advocacy, and leadership.

“Predicting impact, in advance of the research, is very hard to do,” said Collins, who received his master's degree and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Penn Engineering. He was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the institution. “You don’t really have any way of knowing the outcome ahead of time, or even that there will be an outcome. It helps to have worked alongside the brilliant minds of the Penn faculty

"To illustrate my point, let me challenge your knowledge of jazz by asking, what do John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Rollins have in common?

"They all played for Miles Davis.

"At Penn, we all played for Miles Davis,” said Collins, as he detailed the vital skills he acquired from his own thesis advisor at Penn, Stuart Winston Churchill, a nationally recognized engineer who made seminal contributions in the areas of heat transfer and fluid flow problems.

Collins also emphasized the importance of self-advocacy, advising the scholars to be their own best advocates.

“Doing great work is important, but receiving the credit you deserve for your work is equally important,” he said. “The research world is competitive, and it is easy for good work to be drowned out by louder voices. I am not advocating for arrogance. But excessive humility can also be a problem. Think of it this way, your important contribution to the world could go unnoticed if you are not forcefully bringing it to the world.”

two men in graduation regalia
Penn Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar (at left) and Innovation Campus Vice President and Executive Director Lance Collins.

Finally, Collins, speaking from his position as head of the Innovation Campus, which is set to open in Alexandria in 2024, focused a portion of his address on leadership.

“Opportunities to lead may come along, and it is up to you to seize the opportunity when it arises,” said Collins, who noted that rising to an academic leadership position was not his first instinct, and it was encouragement from his peers that led him to his first department director position.

“As you can tell from my bio, once I got a taste of administration, I discovered I found it fulfilling. I subsequently became dean of Engineering at Cornell, and now direct Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus. Each position brought new challenges that forced me to grow in different ways. If the opportunity arises, I hope you too will step up to the challenge.” 

In addition to his leadership role at the Innovation Campus, Collins is professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. His research is focused on the application of direct numerical simulation to a broad range of turbulent processes. In 2021, Collins was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

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