One of USC’s most accomplished alumni recently added to his academic laurels.
Neil G. Siegel already held Bachelor of Science ’74 and Master of Science ’76 degrees as he prepared to receive a Ph.D. in mid-May from the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
But unlike any other Ph.D. candidate honored in this year’s hooding ceremony, Siegel already was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest distinctions in the discipline.
While continuing his distinguished career as a high-level executive at Northrop Grumman Corp., Siegel had spent the past three years as a graduate student in the class of professor Barry Boehm, exploring a field in which his achievements were so prominent that IEEE honored them in 2010 with one of its highest awards.
“Neil’s is a remarkable story,” said Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “It is probably the first time ever that a Ph.D. committee had to judge the thesis of an individual who had already won the IEEE Ramo Medal. Or of one who is the senior vice president of a major corporation! Or who was a NAE member. In all these capacities, Neil has demonstrated brilliance, commitment and tenacity. We cannot be more proud of his accomplishments.”
“It was a great experience,” said Siegel, who came to USC in 1971. After receiving his B.S. and M.S. degrees in mathematics, he said, “I decided to work – I didn’t want to be a starving student.”
His took a job at TRW, where he met Boehm. The two hit it off, and Siegel formed a long-term plan: “I would work and retire, and then go study with Barry.”
His resolution remained firm as time passed – but as Siegel approached age 55, he realized the 20-year age difference between himself and his mentor was becoming a critical factor. He did not want to give up the vision, “so instead of doing this in my leisure time, I did it while I was working in aerospace.”
The transition from senior vice president to working grad student “brought some shock,” Siegel recalled, such as requirements to take graduate exams, sit in classes and carry on projects with fellow members young enough to be his children. But USC cut him no slack.
“It was good discipline,” he said. “I had to do what they told me.” And in doing so, he emerged with a Ph.D. in systems engineering with a minor in mathematics while managing to fit in summer adventures such as a 2010 trip through central Asia with his wife, author Robyn Friend.
Stan Settles, chairman of the Epstein department, underscored the difficulty and rareness of his achievement.
“In general, people with even moderate success in industry find it very difficult to do the research required for a dissertation,” he said. “They are used to a system that rewards them for results rather than for conceptual understanding and contribution.”
“Neil’s level of accomplishment in industry,” Settles continued, “far exceeds any other student’s in my experience. Yet he was able to develop the understanding and complete the process while still serving at a full-time executive level in a company. Very impressive!”
Siegel holds more than 20 patents in many domains, including real-time manufacturing, medical systems, communications protocols and computing systems. He has been a member of review panels for the Defense Science Board, the Army Science Board and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.
Besides his 2010 IEEE Ramo Medal and his 2005 election to membership in the National Academy of Engineering, he has won Northrop Grumman’s Chairman’s Award for Innovation three times and is a member of the U.S. Army’s Order of Saint Barbara.
Looking ahead to the next “great experience,” Siegel noted that he was unable to attend this year’s Commencement.
“I was on business travel,” he lamented.
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