Born in Greece, Lena Valavani, PhD, came to the United States to study physics at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Inspired early on by the works of Bertrand Russell, she was further encouraged by her mentors at Barnard, including her adviser Richard Friedberg and Chien-Shiung Wu, the renowned “First Lady of Physics.” Graduating from Barnard with a Bachelor of Science in physics, she went on to join Yale University, where she earned both a Master of Science and a Master of Philosophy before concluding her formal studies with a Doctor of Philosophy in engineering and applied science in 1978. Embarking on her career in a postdoctoral position at Yale, Dr. Valavani then accepted a position at MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems before becoming a Boeing associate professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics.
Today, Dr. Valavani is a distinguished member of technical staff at Draper Laboratory, a position she has held since 2012. Holding considerable expertise in automation, adaption and learning, systems theory, and artificial intelligence, her duties include overseeing the engineers at the lab, teaching and training her teams, addressing new technology needs, and presenting concepts to various funding organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and the National Science Foundation, among others. Looking toward the future, Dr. Valavani hopes to return to Europe and do work in the defense area with the European Union and is considering writing a book about her life experiences.
Having made a name for herself as someone who is not easily deterred and strives to find new and better ways to do things, Dr. Valavani has always been motivated to create new things and help others find joy in that same endeavor. She attributes much of her professional growth to surrounding herself with intelligent people, which includes her students and her mother, who she considers to be the smartest person she has ever known. She has also strived to be a mentor herself, particularly to young women, as she was herself only the second woman faculty member in the aeronautics department at MIT. While at MIT, she was instrumental in drawing more female students into physics and engineering and she was named a Best Teacher.
For her achievements, Dr. Valavani has been recognized as an associate fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics and holds membership in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She considers her greatest achievement to be the “smart engine,” which emerged after she helped solve a problem that had been deemed unsolvable for the previous 50 years. This led to considerable improvements in how jet engines were built and continues to impact engine production to this day. Incredibly proud of her ability to innovate in a way that has so directly impacted her field, she was recognized for her efforts with a Best Paper Award for her work with the “smart engine.” Above everything, however, Dr. Valavani considers the highlight of her career to be the birth of her son, which came early on in her tenure at MIT and she was grateful to have the support of her students as she returned to teaching less than two weeks later.