Monday, January 18, 2010

Introduction to the Blog

As long as I can remember, I have been able to do my best thinking while I walk around.  In college, I used to pace up and down the hallways of my fraternity house while I memorized notes and equations for exams, and I would go out for long walks around the University of Illinois campus to clear my head, think about my goals, and make plans of action.  For me, getting away from the television, phone, my roommate, and the refrigerator were the best way to create an environment that would let me have those deep, and sometimes not-so-deep thoughts.

One such walk around campus during my freshman year at Illinois still sticks in my memory.  Most often, I would take my “thinking walks” after dark, so there were not very many people around. I walked from my dormitory (Hendrick House), over the top of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (which is perfectly legal, since there are walkways that go over the building!) and over to the Quad.  Since it was a beautiful evening, and all the campus buildings were lit up, I stopped and sat down in the grass in the middle of the Quad and looked around.  I thought to myself: “What is it that I want to accomplish here at the University of Illinois?  When I am done, what is it that I want to be able to say that I did?”  At that time, I was enrolled in the General Engineering program, mostly because I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but was not really sure what kind of engineering I would like the best.  “General” Engineering seemed like a good way to keep my options open, because it was, well, general.  So at that point, I still did not really know what I wanted to be when I grew up.  What I decided that night was that I wanted to get to the top of the University of Illinois, and to be the best.  What that meant to me at that time was to find the area of engineering that would have the biggest impact on society, and to be the best possible student of that topic.  I was interested in Genetic Engineering because of all the great and interesting things that genetics promised, but back in my freshman year (1982), a student could not really major in that.  I also thought that computers would be a big deal in the future, and so shortly after that walk, I decided to major in Computer Engineering, and to try my hardest to get perfect grades in that topic.

As I got older, I began to realize that “getting to the top” would mean more than getting the best grades.  There was such a thing as graduate school, where you could earn higher degrees of academic accomplishment.  Initially, I had absolutely no intention of going to graduate school, since I was paying most of my own way through college, and I did not especially enjoy being broke all the time.  Even though a smart student could get a stipend in graduate school to pay for tuition and living expenses, I knew a lot of people who were graduating with their Bachelors degrees in engineering and getting several job offers with pretty high-sounding salaries.   Also, besides my professors, I had never even met someone who had a PhD in any topic, and had no idea what the extra training would mean to my career.  I will write more later about reasons for choosing to go to graduate school, but for now, let me just say that I did go, and earned my PhD in Electrical Engineering in 1990, approximately 8 years after my fateful evening walk.  I had finally reached the “top.”  Or had I?

After finishing my PhD, I had absolutely no desire to ever be a professor.  After having deferred joining the real world for 4 years of graduate school, I was anxious to make my way in industry, and start earning a living.   After four years of graduate school, I now knew many people with PhDs (professors, alumni, and people I would meet at scientific conferences), but I did not have a strong idea of what faculty did with most of their time, why it was important, or how you could become a professor.  I pretty much had tunnel vision for my classes, my research project, my social life, getting married, and finding a job.

Later in the blog, I will talk more about why and how to become a professor, but again, just take my word for it that I did.  I worked in industry for 15 years after my PhD, and then joined the faculty at the University of Illinois in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in 2004.  During that time, I still liked doing a lot of my thinking while walking around, but I had also taken up cycling  during the time I lived in the Boston area.  So one of the first things that I did after my family moved into our new house in Champaign, IL was to take my bike out for an early morning ride.  Since there is not too much to see around central Illinois besides corn and soybeans, my trip led me to campus, where again I parked myself in the center of the Quad to think.  For one thing, I could not believe that they let me come back to my old school to be a professor.  I was quite sure that every other faculty member in the department must be more intelligent than I was.  I was somewhat nervous about teaching class in the upcoming Fall semester, since I had not taken or taught a class in 15 years, and so much had happened during that time that I could barely remember what it was like to be a student.  Looking around, I realized that there were only a handful of people on campus who even knew who I was, and that it would take a lot of effort to establish myself.  To start with, I was an Associate Professor without tenure, who had never written a grant application to NSF or NIH.  What would it take to reach the “top” now, and how would I know when I got there?  Nobody had ever really explained to me how a person earns tenure at a top-5 research university.  I figured that I would find out along the way, and that if I turned out to be a lousy professor, I would find a job back in Industry doing something else. 

I did have some things going for me after all.  During my time in the “real world,” I had the opportunity to do hands-on learning of the methods used in making microelectronic circuits, and ways for adapting those methods toward making highly miniature sensors.  I learned how to manage large research projects and to organize the efforts of diverse groups of technicians, engineers, and scientists.  I had taken classes in biology and business, and was one of the few people who had translated a new biological sensor technology into a commercial product.  I had founded a startup company, through which I had the opportunity to interact closely with hundreds of scientists and managers at pharmaceutical companies and the companies that make tools for biology research.  I had never taught a class, but I had given hundreds of seminars, marketing pitches, investor presentations, and inter-company presentations about my company’s technology.  I did not have the same number of scientific journal manuscripts to my name as most of my faculty colleagues, but I had dozens of patents and a product that was being adopted by some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.  Again, later in the blog, I will write more about the process of earning full professor status, but let me here just say that I did.  At last I had reached the top of the academic pyramid!  Right?  Once again, I am not so sure.

There were several reasons that I chose to become a professor, but the main ones are related to what I thought about during my freshman year evening walk on the Quad.  To do something in my career that makes an impact.  To do something with my time here on earth that will make a difference to somebody.  There are lots of ways that an engineer can make a positive difference in the world, but I can say from experience that an engineer can be extremely smart and extremely hard-working, and not have a chance to see their work make the difference that they expected, or not be able to reap the benefit from it.  Things happen.  Projects get cancelled, another company comes out with better technology, a competitor has a much stronger marketing campaign, your company gets merged with another company.  The list of possibilities for things to go wrong is pretty long.  My goal, as a professor, would be to work on the more fundamental things – the things with broad far-reaching implications,  that could not simply fall victim to poor management or the whims of the marketplace.  In particular, my goal as a professor is to work on technologies that can make an impact on human health and well-being.  Tools that can help discover new drug treatments, or diagnostic tests that can help identify a disease at an early, treatable stage are the kinds of projects that motivate me.  The other way that I felt my work as a professor would make a lasting impact would be to work with students, and to help them get a strong start in their careers.  Arguably, training the next generation of scientific leaders and helping them to develop the tools that they will need to be innovative can have a greater overall impact than any one thing that I can work on myself.

As a professor, one of my goals has been to share what I have learned from my experiences with my graduate students, undergraduate advisees, and my class.  One thing that I have found pretty amusing since I became a professor is that a lot of people suddenly actually wanted my opinion.  I started to become inundated with requests to serve on proposal review panels for grant agencies throughout the world, to review journal articles, to give talks at conferences, to share my experience on discussion panels, to take leadership positions in technical societies, and to write chapters in textbooks.  I was still the same person that I was before, but I now worked for an institution that actively encouraged professional service and sharing of knowledge.  I also found that, in order to teach classes effectively, I was forced to dig back and understand the fundamentals again, and that activities such as preparing lectures, making exam problems, and inventing new homework questions were helping me to regain the technical edge that I felt was getting weaker from my time in Industry.  Another amusing change from industry to academia was that, while in industry I was very often speaking with investors, customers, and business partners who were always very skeptical about anything I had to say, questioning practically every word.  Suddenly, as a professor, it seemed like most students thought that I must know everything, and assumed that everything I said had to be true!  Still, many excellent students ask very insightful questions, and the rigors of the peer review process make sure that all our scientific conclusions are well-supported.  I have found that many students have the same questions that I had when I was a student, and that as I advise more students, I find myself repeating many of the same stories and lessons. Questions such as “what is the best way to prepare for the PhD qualifying exam” or “how should I go about preparing to write my first journal article” or “how to prepare to give a great conference presentation” or “what is expected of me as a graduate student” are critical to the success in graduate school, but I saw that many students receive very little guidance from their advisors.  I have also had many talks with postdoctorate researchers and assistant professors about topics that include “how to prepare a strong NSF proposal,” “what is involved in writing a patent application” or “how did you go about starting a company?” 

While I cannot claim to be an authoritative expert on all these topics, I am happy to share my thoughts and experiences, for what they are worth.  The purpose of this blog is to write about topics that might be of general interest to engineering graduate students, post-docs, and faculty.  The blog represents my own opinions and perspectives, and therefore whatever I say is not necessary a law, such as the laws of physics.  If you read something in this blog that you do not agree with, I welcome your constructive thoughts and comments by email.  If you have found something that I have written to be useful, I of course welcome your positive comments as well!  As I travel to scientific meetings, I also plan to write about some of the most interesting/cool/exciting technical developments that I come across in the areas of biophotonics, nanotechnology, sensors, and more.  The good thing about a blog is that I can write about whatever I am most interested in, and as readers, you can choose to read about the topics that are useful to you, while skipping the rest.

Starting out as a new professor, I found a few books to be helpful for understanding the demands of the job, developing a teaching philosophy, and developing strong proposals.  I can highly recommend the following books:

1.     Phillip C. Wankat, “The effective, efficient professor: Teaching, scholarship, and service,” Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA, 2002.
2.     Nihil Nimus, “Advice for new faculty members,” Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA ,2000. 
3.     Richard M. Reis, “Tomorrow’s professor: Preparing for academic careers in science and engineering,” IEEE Press, , Wiley Interscience, New York, NY, 1997.
 4. Walter H. Gmelch, “Coping with faculty stress: Survival skills for scholars,” SAGE Publications, Newbury Park, CA, 1993.

Happy Reading!

Copyright © 2010, Brian T. Cunningham