Carnegie Mellon University

Leslie Cohon

June 15, 2016

Learning by Doing: How CEE Prepared Leslie Cohen to be a Global Citizen and Technology Pioneer

From his first day at CEE, Leslie Cohen (BS ’62, MS ’64, PhD ’66) realized that CMU offered a distinctive approach to learning: while most engineering schools taught with rote formulas and memorization, CMU focused on active discovery through problem-solving.

“You had to learn by doing,” Cohen says. “Once I graduated, I flourished. I was so out in front because of CMU’s approach to learning and doing work.”

That approach came into play when Cohen began his career as a composite materials engineer at McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in California, where he developed materials for a variety of products, from aircraft to biomedical devices.

He soon became McDonnell-Douglas’s Director of Technical Operations, where he directed research and design contracts for the strategic launch vehicle and tactical missile systems.

Eventually, Cohen became Vice President of Advanced Programs in the USSR, based in Moscow at the challenging period of the fall of the Soviet Union.

With his technical expertise, Cohen was honored as a foreign member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. There, he was asked to restructure the large and overly complicated Academy of Sciences.

“There were 800,000 people and 336 institutes, and when I finished that night there were 400,000 people and 236 institutes,” Cohen says.

Cohen’s streamlining process worked, and the Academy of Sciences has flourished. “I helped shape the world in a Cold War sense,” Cohen says. “There’s a certain sense of pride in that for someone whose grandparents came through Ellis Island.”

Today, Cohen lives in Los Angeles, where he is Senior Vice President of New Business Development and Strategic Technology at HITCO Carbon Composites, a provider of aerostructures and material solutions.

HITCO manufactures advanced composites for aerospace and industrial applications and produces a variety of fiberglass, carbon, and graphite composites products. Cohen continues to solve problems: he and his team have developed multiple new technologies, including the fully automated aerostructure fabricator of composite structures, and the autoclave automated manufacture of primary structures for advanced carbon-epoxy composites.

Now he and his U.S. and German-based colleagues work to manufacture “aerospace hardware at automobile prices.” Cohen predicts that by dramatically lowering manufacturing costs and increasing accessibility of these composite materials, HITCO can reach many new customers and reduce production costs across new fields. “That will be a paradigm shift in aerospace technology,” he says. “I’m working hard to make that a reality.”

Cohen encourages current CEE students to put that same hard work into their CMU experience “Engage as much as possible in your classroom activities, and when you go into the workforce, form teams and work in a team environment in order to solve problems,” he says.