School of Applied and Engineering Physics

Mission and Vision

The School of Applied and Engineering Physics (AEP) is a unique engineering department. Its undergraduate education program (Engineering Physics) was mandated to “go far toward bridging the gap between training in basic sciences and fundamental engineering” at its inception in 1946. Its research and graduate program, started in 1967 as one of the earliest Applied Physics programs in the country, was founded on the ideas to “allow individuals to focus on several different areas… to introduce new research areas as they appear and to allow transitions as the fertility of areas proceed through stages of nucleation, growth, and recession”. This vision of our founding fathers still accurately describes what AEP is today.

The AEP mission is to create and disseminate knowledge in intellectual areas at the interface between physics and traditional engineering or scientific disciplines, using the techniques, skills and principles commonly associated with physics. We create knowledge through research and scholarly activity. We disseminate knowledge both by educating undergraduate and graduate students and by performing service to industry, government and professional societies. In all of the endeavors required to fulfill this mission, we aim to maintain the highest standards of excellence. Our long term goal for the AEP education program is to ensure that its very successful undergraduate Engineering Physics (EP) major is recognized as the foremost program of its type in the nation, and to make its graduate program in Applied Physics the leading Ph.D. program in the country for physics based interdisciplinary research and education.

Lena Kourkoutis, Assistant Professor of Applied and Engineering Physics, works in the lab with graduate student Katie Spoth.
(photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University)


Leveraging the deep knowledge of the fundamentals, taking interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches, and being broad and agile are the key characteristics of AEP, which allow AEP to stay at the forefront of research fields while its core areas of expertise have changed dramatically over the last 60 years. By all measures, e.g., research revenue per faculty member, leaderships in Cornell Centers, papers and citations, etc., AEP has been highly successful in the past. Currently AEP leads the world in a number of research areas such as quantum materials, electron microscopy, biomedical imaging, ultrafast lasers, X-ray science, spintronics, etc. Our strategy moving forward in the next 5 to 10 years is to leverage our existing strengths, target “impossible” but high impact areas, broaden collaborations, and maintain or establish new leadership positions in the areas identified. While we will continue to be flexible and broad in our research, we have identified three research thrusts for growth over the next 5 to 10 years. These thrusts dovetail with some of the most important scientific frontiers in the 21st century and have major upsides in terms of funding (both public and private) and national importance. They are briefly described below:

  • Quantum information science and institute for Quantum Information at Cornell (QuIC): The race to innovate quantum technology is now a world-wide effort, and an urgent national priority in the US. At Cornell, students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, have enthusiastically enrolled in quantum courses and Cornell’s early investments in faculty have quickly catapulted Cornell Engineering as one of the leading places in the country to pursue quantum studies. QuIC will leverage Cornell’s larger set of investments in nanotechnology and materials research to create a center of excellence in quantum science and technology with the potential to see Cornell Engineering emerge as one of the top institutions in the world for quantum education and research, and to enable the expansion of existing faculty expertise into the quantum sphere and nucleate National Quantum Research Centers at Cornell.
  • Enabling technology for improving health: AEP, being the birthplace for biophysics and nanobiotechnology at Cornell, is uniquely positioned to play a leading role for delivering the technological innovations that are desperately needed to address the global challenges of health 2 and disease related issues. Indeed, technologies developed in AEP have changed the landscape of biological research. We “see the deep” with multiphoton microscopy, “sense the small” with micro/nanofluidics and “reveal the hidden” using the world’s best electron microscopes and the world’s brightest x-rays. AEP has an established brand for innovation for biotechnology, and there are a number of opportunities going forward in the next 5 to 10 years. Two examples are: (1) A center for applying optical imaging technology to various biological fields (modeled after Cornell Neurotech). The new center will sustain Cornell’s leadership in developing imaging technology, and at the same time further advance Cornell’s position in biological sciences. (2) A structural biophysics center that identifies and creates the best tools for visualizing molecular assemblies at and across any length scale, from Å to cells, seeded by the combination of state of the art electron microscopy, a synchrotron source, and creative imaging and new fabrication tools.
  • Enabling technology for energy research: Energy research currently has a smaller footprint (in terms of number of faculty) in AEP than the two thrusts described above, but we see this as an opportunity area for AEP. AEP has world-leading expertise and capability in electron microscopy of materials, which have proven an essential and integral part of our large Energy Centers on campus (including EMC2 and now CABES). Just as we used this to nucleate a quantum materials community at Cornell, we can use our unique capabilities in electron microscope, along with an on-site synchrotron, to study energy materials from atomic to macroscopic length scales to attract and grow a world-leading energy materials community at Cornell. In coordination with other departments and colleges, we need to recruit more young fabrication, computational and device experts on campus, and our unique and ongoing efforts in materials characterization is something that cannot yet be matched at our peer institutions (e.g., MIT, Stanford, Caltech).


AEP’s educational programs offer a unique combination of engineering, mathematics and physics. EP is often considered as one of the hardest undergrad programs at Cornell, with strong emphasis on basic physics and mathematics. We believe that excellence in physics – particularly developing the capability to do physics, rather than just know physics – is vitally important for a scientist or engineer to push the frontier of an engineering area. AEP offers hands-on lab courses at all levels, and a majority of EP students had individualized experience in research labs. EP graduates are sought after by graduate schools in a wide range of disciplines, and by employers seeking individuals with strong technical and analytical skills. EP alumni deeply appreciate the benefits of rigorous training in the fundamentals to their career advancement. While we don’t anticipate major changes in our curriculum, we will continue to refresh our courses and bring the latest teaching methodologies to our classrooms. The priorities for AEP education in the next 5 to 10 years are:

  • Create elective courses at the cutting edge of research and at the intersection of physics and engineering
  • Deliver with the latest teaching methodologies and create our own active learning classrooms
  • Continue to provide hands-on research experience in faculty labs
  • Hire teaching fellows or teaching postdocs for course development and enhancement

Raise funds to support the activities above EP historically has a low percentage of female students. While the percentage of URM students in EP is comparable to the college average, the percentage of female students in EP has lagged behind the college, particularly in recent years when the college achieved a ~ 50/50 gender ratio. We will implement a number 3 of new approaches for recruiting more female and URM students to EP:

  • Improve connections to female/URM students through a peer advising program in EP and by strengthening the EP undergrad society
  • Support female/URM undergraduate research in AEP and publicize their successes
  • Collaborate with other STEM departments for recruiting
  • Create a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee to improve the overall climate at AEP
Duffield Hall in the snow with

Photo by Kevin Stearns, Cornell University.