Engineering professor remembered for his unique research perspective, student advocacy and mentoring
Chase Cotton, a knowledgeable and passionate researcher, educator and colleague in the University of Delaware College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, passed away on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
After a long career in the communications industry, Dr. Cotton, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UD in 1984, joined the ECE department in 2008 as a visiting scholar before becoming a senior scientist and later a professor of practice.
Dr. Cotton was known for his unique perspective on research thanks to his long career in industry, for always advocating in the best interests of students in the department and for being a kind and supportive role model and mentor to students and faculty alike.
“Chase Cotton was truly one of a kind. He was deeply committed to helping his students be successful and, in turn, they revered him. His collegiality, good humor and kindness won him the admiration and respect of just about everyone he met,” said Levi Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering and Elizabeth Inez Kelley Professor of Chemical Engineering. “On behalf of our College of Engineering, I extend my most heartfelt condolences to Chase’s family, friends, students and colleagues. We all are better for having known him, and we will miss him tremendously.”
Impactful researcher, engaged educator
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Cotton began his career at Bellcore (now iconectiv), where he was involved in developing new algorithms and computational methods for telecommunication applications. He worked with carriers worldwide to set up ISPs and was involved with the first large scale commercial DSL deployment for consumer broadband services. While working for Sprint in the 2000s, Dr. Cotton led a team that twice set the Internet 2 Land Speed World Record on a commercial production network.
Dr. Cotton brought his unique perspective to UD in 2008, where his initial focus on networking architecture evolved into a research program that combined cybersecurity and machine learning. Not only did Dr. Cotton broaden the ECE department’s expertise in the field of cybersecurity, explained Kenneth Barner, Charles Black Evans Professor of Electrical Engineering, he also expanded the department’s educational and training opportunities in the field.
“He was the first true cybersecurity expert we had, thanks to his experience building and deploying networking systems across the country,” said Barner. “That focus on networking, and the security of those networks, grew into what we now consider the field of cybersecurity.”
Dr. Cotton was the driver behind the ECE department’s first program offerings in cybersecurity and served as the director of the cybersecurity minor and master’s programs. He also developed a cybersecurity certificate training program for engineers and scientists at Aberdeen Proving Ground and hosted summer cybersecurity boot camps. Dr. Cotton was also instrumental in developing the Cyber Range, a safe environment for cyber warfare training located in the Evans Hall iSuite.
After joining UD, Dr. Cotton also revitalized ECE’s senior design program by consolidating the previous program into a single two-semester course. As the lead instructor, Dr. Cotton would manage and coordinate up to 20 student projects every year and was renowned for his ability to remember and share stories about projects and students from years past when alumni or visitors would visit Evans Hall.
“Chase had a tremendous impact on shaping the professional lives of engineers over many decades,” said Jamie Phillips, chair of the ECE department. “His vast experience in teaching and industry—and the fact that he was pretty much an expert in almost anything and everything—made him an ideal fit for our senior capstone design course sequence. He was so vested in helping our students succeed in these projects that he could point to prototypes in his office from years ago and talk in great detail about the project, the student team, and the great things they went on to do after graduation.”
In 2016, when a team of seniors had the opportunity to send their project to space through the NASA’s RockSat-C program, Dr. Cotton traveled with the team and even helped pay for supplies and accommodation out of his own pocket. “He would always say that it’s not about the money. For him, it was all about supporting our students,” said Cyndi McLaughlin, who was previously ECE’s business administrator and is now associate director for business operations in UD’s Office of Communications and Marketing. “He could easily tell stories about students and their projects, and he always remembered his students by name. He was always there for them.”
'My mentor for life'
As a teacher, mentor and adviser, Dr. Cotton was known for how much he cared for and believed in his students. To read more from Dr. Cotton’s students and colleagues about his impact on their lives and careers, or to share your own remembrance, visit the ECE’s in memoriam website.
“Everyone knows Dr. Cotton as a successful researcher, but his students know him as a kind and incredibly compassionate human being,” said Ishaani Priyadarshini, who came to UD for the cybersecurity master’s program and, after working with Dr. Cotton for her thesis project, decided to stay in his lab for her doctorate. She is now a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and credits Dr. Cotton’s support as instrumental in achieving her goal of working in academia. “He knew what we were capable of, and he never stopped encouraging us,” she added.
Arshiya Khan also came to UD for the master’s in cybersecurity and through a shared interest in topics around artificial intelligence and machine learning began working on her Ph.D. with Dr. Cotton. “He wasn’t just my Ph.D. adviser—he was my mentor for life,” said Khan. “He was always aware of our successes and our failures. His outlook for us was that failure was just a part of life and we will do good no matter what.”
Doctoral candidate Saleh Makkawy said that Dr. Cotton was always welcoming, helpful and generous with his time. “Whenever you would go and talk to him when you were feeling down about something, he would always encourage you,” said Makkawy. “He was always there to support you with everything you needed, and he would work with you towards your goal. I learned a lot from him.”
Michael De Lucia, who works for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, met Dr. Cotton in 2014 and decided to come to UD for his doctorate, after which he co-taught the Topics in Cybersecurity course with Dr. Cotton on network security applied machine learning. De Lucia said that Dr. Cotton was always a supportive mentor, both as an academic adviser and later as a co-instructor.
“For my dissertation, he was always someone I could bounce ideas off of and who reinforced that my ideas were good. And while we were teaching together, he showed me different teaching styles, how to make the content interesting, and was also a mentor for me in the classroom,” said De Lucia.
A lasting legacy
From the outpouring of stories and memories shared by students, faculty and colleagues since his passing, it’s apparent that Dr. Cotton’s impact on the UD community, thanks to his passion, kindness and enthusiasm, is one that will be felt for years to come.
“He was one of the smartest people I knew, but he never made you feel less than,” said McLaughlin. “If you wanted to learn, he was happy to teach. That’s just who he was, and it’s what made him such a great mentor and teacher.”
Priyadarshini shared that because Dr. Cotton was such a visionary, some of his students have wondered who would ever be able to continue his incredible legacy. “But a person’s legacy can be so many different things,” she said. “Dr. Cotton used to say that everyone is smart in academia, and that you should distinguish yourself by being kind. We can all take that from him and keep him alive in our hearts by imparting his lessons into our everyday lives.”