John Cipolla, professor emeritus of mechanical and industrial engineering, likes to compare the thrill of teaching to the rush of driving a racecar. “You work hard to understand the material, impart it to your students, and answer questions without rifling through your notes,” said Cipolla, who retired in December following more than 45 years of service to Northeastern. “It’s intense, but it’s the tension that keeps you mentally alert.”
Cipolla was honored for his dedication to Northeastern on Thursday afternoon in the Curry Student Center Ballroom, where friends and colleagues described him as a “quintessential professor” who “served as a role model for collegiality and shared governance.”
Framed photos of Cipolla adorned high-top tables, as dozens of people angled for a moment with the esteemed academic. On one table was a photo of Cipolla and his mentor sharing a meal on a patio in Turkey in July 1984. On another, a shot of Cipolla and his four brothers beaming for the camera in August 2008.
“We bid farewell to a deeply admired faculty colleague and beloved teacher,” President Joseph E. Aoun wrote in a note to Cipolla. “As a mentor of a generation of students, you have shaped the future of engineering.”
Cipolla joined Northeastern in the fall of 1971, just two years after he earned his doctorate in engineering from Brown University. Among his many roles at Northeastern, he served as chair of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and vice provost for graduate education. Upon retiring, he held two esteemed titles—Donald W. Smith Chair and COE Distinguished Professor.
Cipolla’s research and scholarship focused on mathematical modeling, thermodynamics, and the kinetic theory of gases. He published dozens of papers in prestigious publications, such as the Journal of Heat Transfer, and won a number of national awards, including the 2014 Edwin F. Church Medal, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ highest accolade for service to the field.
In the summer of 2015, he and his wife established the John and Katharine Cipolla Graduate Student Support Fund to celebrate doctoral students, whom Cipolla called “the intellectual heart of any research university.” “With time, inevitably, this fund will grow,” he explained. “My hope is that it will inspire giving long after I’m gone.”
Cipolla will miss Northeastern’s people the most, the students, faculty, and staff who helped to imbue his life’s work with purpose. “Northeastern is an extraordinary place to work,” he said. “It’s full of bright, collegial people who are great to be around.” He described his pupils as “intelligent, funny, and energetic,” as motivated young learners who “come prepared to work hard.”
As the winner of the College of Engineering’s 2011 Award for Outstanding Teaching, Cipolla knows what it takes to connect with students. His advice to young professors, he said, is to design engaging courses that reflect the totality of knowledge that students will be asked to absorb throughout their college careers. “Don’t teach a course in isolation,” he advised, noting that students will often utilize classroom concepts to solve co-op problems or apply a principle learned in one course to answer a challenging question in another. “You have to be aware of these pathways of knowledge acquisition, understand that teaching is part of a continuum of student development, and realize that each course should be placed in context with the curriculum.”
Cipolla’s future plans are up in the air. He’s still part of the faculty, teaching a spring semester course as an adjunct professor. And he’ll spend part of his newfound downtime making wine in the basement of his Jamaica Plain home, a hobby that he took up in 1977. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. “I have no agenda. No cruises are mapped out,” he said. “But something will turn up and attract my attention.”