10-Questions with Tony Pavone

Tony Pavone racing a KTM Husky.
On seizing opportunities and on giving back...
Concept & interview by: Shekhar Garde, gardes@rpi.edu

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I graduated from RPI with BS/ME degrees in chemical engineering in 1969/70.  After spending 2 years in the Army on active duty as a Signal Corps officer, I returned to school and got an MBA from MIT in 1978. In between I worked as a project and then process engineer for 2 engineering companies.

I went to high school on Long Island. I got a scholarship requiring that I attend school in New York State, so my options at the time were Clarkson, RPI, and Cornell. I visited Clarkson during February, and the weather did me in. I got off the bus at Cornell by the student parking lot, and saw how many expensive cars there were, and decided it wasn’t for me. RPI was a good fit for me, plus I got to wrestle there under freshman dean Norb Smalling, which was as important to me as classroom learning.

What attracted you to Rensselaer?

RPI to me was an unpolished gem. Freshman physics lecture was by Bob Resnick, who wrote THE text on physics with David Halliday. The freshman chemistry text was written by RPI professors, who also taught the class. I took thermodynamics under HC Van Ness, who was the pre-eminent global expert in the field. WOW! They cared about my education as much as I did. Most prominent professors these days either don’t teach, or teach an obscure grad class with 5 students.

What was your Rensselaer experience like? What do you think distinguishes Rensselaer?

RPI forces you to learn how to learn. There isn’t enough time to do everything, so you learn to prioritize your time. There isn’t enough time to do everything, so you learn how to focus on what is essential, and let the rest slide. You work your butt off, which is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to career success. If you put in the effort, what you get out of RPI is a world class education, and I’ve never felt 2nd class to any other institution. Beside MIT, I taught for 20+ years as an adjunct the senior ChE capstone design course at Stanford, and am on the advisory ChE board at West Point. An RPI education easily stacks up to those other institutions.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an Engineer.

I always wanted to be an engineer. My father was a draftsman in the engineering world, and I felt OK about this career choice. It was important to me to get a professional engineer’s license, as a validation of the hard work it takes. As an engineering career progresses, you get more involved in the economic side, and less in the science side, so a graduate business degree makes sense. Beside the engineering companies, I worked for Exxon for 10 years in New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana. Since then, I’ve worked for a consulting company here in Silicon Valley, and have travelled to almost every country on the planet that produces either oil or chemicals. Doing process work, I’ve also dabbled in food processing, pharmaceuticals, water purification, and power generation. It’s been a great trip!

You are a chemical engineer. How has chemical engineering evolved over the years?

Chemical engineering used to be an obscure profession with its own obscure methods like process flow diagrams and P&ID diagrams. Since then, the rest of the engineering world has mostly adopted ChE methods. Now you see the same PFDs/P&IDs in power plants, pharma plants, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and even in ship navigation systems. One of the outcomes is that ChE’s today do a much broader set of activities than when I graduated. There are plenty of ChE’s in the semiconductor world of say Intel, writing code for Google and Facebook, doing pharma for Genentech and Merck, and running facilities that used to be the exclusive province of civil engineers (water) and mechanical engineers (power).

What do you do when you are not working or thinking about your research?

I’ve spent a 40 year career doing commercial/industrial work, so research is just one component of getting the job done well. I spent 20 years racing dirt bikes (KTM, Husky) on the side in cross country events, and raised a family of 3 boys. Add to that the teaching and I’ve had a full life of adventure. I couldn’t have planned it better, although much of it wasn’t planned at all. Most of the time the best you can do is to prepare yourself for opportunities, and then seize them when they show up.

Is there a particular memory from your RPI days that you wish to share?

I was in a fraternity for 3 years, which to me was a necessary diversion from the academic grind, especially during big weekends. I remember doing liquor runs to the low cost package stores in Vermont, and being chased by the NYS troopers on Route 7 on the way back! I also remember the Greek Week chariot races, which as a starving wrestler meant that I rode in the death mobile. I hope that what used to be more than necessary academic sadism has declined at the ‘Tute, but there is no easy and fun way to world class scholarship. As they say in the Army, the easy trail is mined. Also, the only direction in which you can coast is downhill.

What are your favorite books/movies? Or blogs/podcasts?

I really liked the recent ‘Ex Machina’ movie, which was full of commentary about the down side of technology to society. I recently saw ‘The Accountant’, and ‘Suicide Squad’, but I am addicted to the San Francisco Opera House, where I love Verdi performances. I tend to read classics, and recently got through ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ by Thornton Wilder, and before that ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ by James Fenimore Cooper. I work all day in front of a screen, and can’t bring myself to do more of it when on my own time.

You contribute to Rensselaer in numerous ways, including significantly through personal philanthropy.  Why is it important to you?

Life to me is a big bank account where you withdraw when you are young, and deposit when you are old. Too many people selflessly helped me get to where I am, and now it’s my time to reciprocate. Also surprisingly to me, helping others has always had for me a very high ROI, although the rewards never came at the same time or in the same manner as the investments.

What is your message to current Rensselaer students?

RPI gives you the opportunity to become a world class person doing world class things. Don’t blow it. You’re going to work your butt off, so you might as well get as much out of it as you can. Emphasize the quality of what you do more than the quantity of what you do. Make sure you take the time to properly choose what to do, which is as important as how you do it.