Yuan Xie, Professor (interviewed Fall 2016)
What does mentoring mean to you, and why is it important in your profession?
Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. A great professor not only produces great research papers, but also mentors and graduates great students. Students are a professor’s legacy! It is important for me as a professor because a mentor plays an important part in improving someone’s life, helps them gain confidence, helps them grow intellectually and personally, helps them develop skills such as how to do research, how to write papers, give presentations, and how to network. All of which helps them to have a successful career. It is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor and also a lifelong learning experience for me.
As a student, did you have a faculty mentor?
Yes, when I was an undergraduate student at Tsinghua University, China, Professor Hui Wang was my mentor; when I was a graduate student at Princeton University, both Professor Marilyn Wolf and Professor Niraj Jha were my mentors. My first job after I graduated with a PhD, was with the IBM Microelectronics division. I also had a great mentor there, Mr. Kerry Bernstein. Later, when I started as a young professor at Penn State, Professor Mary Jane Irwin was my great mentor. I am extremely lucky to have had many mentors during different stages of my career path.
Which aspects of an academic career do you find most rewarding?
I think the most rewarding aspect is to see the growth of students that I trained and mentored, and eventually see that they have a successful career, some in industry, others in academia. Some of them even have graduated their own students who are my “academic grandchildren.”
How have your scientific accomplishments been shaped by having a cadre of students around?
Students are my colleagues; they work together with me on various research projects. The scientific accomplishments are the outcomes of our work together.
What you hope your students take away from their time in your lab?
I hope that my students can master the essential skill set for their future career path, either in industry or in academia. They should have strong communication skills such as written/oral presentation/networking. They should know how to independently identify problems and find solutions to solve problems. After they graduate from my lab, they should be able to become the leader/ expert in whatever career path they choose.
How do you measure success as a teacher?
I think the success of a teacher is measured by the success of his/ her students. I feel successful when the students I mentor become a successful professor in a university, or a successful engineer/ researcher in industry. I have graduated 23 PhD students (including co-advisees) and many of them are doing very well in industry or academia. Also I am very proud that out of the 23 PhD students I graduated, eight of them are women PhD students, and four of them joined academia and became professors in the U.S., China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. As David Patterson from UC Berkeley said eventually, students are your legacy.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?
Yes, I keep close relationships with my former students. For example, I have a WeChat group that includes more than 30 former students (including MS and REU students). Many of my students work in the Bay Area and when I visit, we always try to have a reunion.
What is the greatest thing a student has ever taught you?
The process of mentoring has taught me many things. One thing I realize is that I should never underestimate students’ potential and should always encourage them to be the best of themselves.
Luke Theogarajan, Professor (Fall 2015)
You were awarded the Outstanding Teaching Award in EE for 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012; what qualities make an outstanding teacher?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m an outstanding teacher; we’ll start with that. Fundamentally, it’s just that I care. I care about what I do and what people learn. I don’t make it easy for my students; they are not given a recipe. I am a difficult professor, but I think it’s because, for the first time in their undergraduate career, students are forced to think critically, they are challenged for the first time. The year they spend with me they scream, shout, tell me I need to see a therapist, and their reviews reflect those frustrations. But really, a year after they graduate they realize that they did learn something, and that they actually enjoyed it.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?
I just received an email today from a former student that just started working in HRL; he graduated about two years ago with an undergraduate degree. A lot of them keep in touch with me, partly because I give them recommendations for jobs, but in general they send me emails letting me know what they’re doing.
Do you have any general advice for UCSB ECE students?
My general advice is to be passionate about what you’re doing. Do not go into engineering because someone told you to, but because you want to be here. This is the most important advice I can give; you really have to want this.
You always have an office full of students; could you tell us more about that? What keeps them coming back?
Well, I think they keep coming back because they do so poorly on my exams! No, it’s really because one, my door is always open and two, I do really care. I give my students the time of day, and enjoy working with them. I think a lot of the time professors are too busy; it’s not that they don’t care.
Describe the work that you do as a faculty adviser for undergraduate students.
There are two things I do as a faculty adviser. First, I walk through the elective courses with the student and sign off or approve of the courses they choose. Second, my kind of unofficial duty to students is to be an outlet for them to discuss their education. Should they go to grad school? Should they go into industry? Is a masters degree good enough for the field they would like to pursue? Should they complete their masters, go to industry, and come back for a PhD? Having experience in industry and academia, I feel I can help guide them, or at least give them an idea of what each field would require of them.
Do most students come to you with a clearly defined path and goal? If not, how do you help get them there? If they do, how do you push them to grow in ways they had not considered?
Most of them are kind of feeling the water and very few know exactly where they’re going. Usually it turns out, that in a class of about 40-60 there are always about 10 students who will follow me around. They come to all my classes, no matter what class I teach they’ll be there, they’ll even take the same class three times in a row. So those kids, I generally try to see what they are good at, what their passion is. I’ll try to help them make decisions about graduate school, or if they want to go into industry what kind of job they may be looking for. I like to give them a reality check, if you’re going to get a bachelors and head into an industry position you’re just going to be at the entry level for a long time and they should be prepared for that. There is nothing wrong with it, but they shouldn’t expect a lot of responsibility. If they want more responsibility they need to earn a masters degree. Most of the time, it’s about encouraging them to go to graduate school.
What do you think are the most important factors in an engineering student’s academic success?
Academic success means always questioning, being curious, not accepting the status quo, and making an effort to understand. It may be a gener ational thing, but I think a big problem these days is that students expect to come in, speed through a degree, and then push buttons. I don’t think that is going to fly in the engineering field; that is not what makes us engineers. If you really want to be successful you have to question everything, and really work hard. This is not an easy field. Just because you show up I’m not going to give you the grade; that’s not how this works. I think that’s what people expect. That has got to change. Students can’t be here because their parents told them to be an engineer, because they think it’s an easy degree, or a way to make money. They have to be passionate and sure that this is what they really want to do.
Forrest Brewer, Professor (interviewed Fall 2013)
As a student, did you have great faculty support?
I was really fortunate. I was in Physics during my time as an undergrad and got exposure to Dick Feynman at Cal Tech., which was more than inspiring, it was life changing. I learned a great deal and it greatly influenced my decision not to stick with physics. In graduate school, that had something to do with why I was more interested in doing other things such as architecture and engineering.
There are always students lined up outside your door — could you tell us more about that?
Itís hard to say. I think it has a lot to do with my lecturing style, which some of my students have compared it to standing in front of a fire hose. Iím not so sure thatís a good thing or a bad thing. For many students, I think things go a little fast and theyíre much happier in a personal setting to ask whatís going on. The hope is that, with the way the lectures are delivered, even the people that are really sharp will see things that they should be asking about because thereís more stuff behind that. I hope that they get something out of it. I do take the time to talk with them because I regard it as one of the more important things I do, itís my first job here. I love to do research but Iím not going to leave people in the cold to make that happen.
Describe the work you do as faculty sponsor of the IEEE group
IEEE is a student group and my job is mostly to provide an interface to the faculty for when thereís an issue of some kind. One thing I have to do is to clue the people in at the end of the summer to start planning on getting people to join IEEE in the fall because new blood is the only way our organization survives. IEEE has literally grown from five to seven people to around forty due-paying members now. Thereís a class on microcontroller design that I run as an independent study. I also provide resources. We scrapped a bunch of computers down in the lab and I convinced people that maybe a few of those should go to IEEE because they need work stations. IEEE sees itself as a kind of learning and craft organization. Itís a way of getting students together to build things and students end up learning a lot. Whether they get it from classes or whether they get it from IEEE, itís still part of the university experience, kind of a label.
Describe the work that you do as a faculty adviser for undergrad students
I spend a lot of time doing that. Undergrads have an even greater need for advising and you kind of owe it to them to talk about things as simple as study habits. You realize students have weaknesses but the weaknesses arenít necessarily obvious and it helps to sound them out. The fact that somebody cares, may actually surprise them. You want to make sure that they carry away from here the seeds of what will get them a little bit through life. The reality is that engineering is sort of a master level thing and leaving with a bachelorís degree is always going to leave holes. You have to select which holes you want to leave and talk to people if you want to become a professional engineer. They really need to think about grad school a little bit and what are their options are and what they can do.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?
The ones that stuck out or got a PhD or advanced degrees definitely. But even a lot of undergrads will come back and talk to me or Iíll see them at some place or run into them at an airport. You also have people come by asking if thereís someone that does a certain kind of thing and youíll realize that maybe thereís a connection you can forge with a former student so inadvertently youíll rebuild those bridges. Itís kind of a nice thing actually, having students out in the real world.
Do you have any general advice for ECE students?
Iíd say one thing is that if you were away from a subject for about six months and presumably have forgotten much of what you had learned in a class, then spend a little bit of time reviewing. Not necessarily doing homework, just reviewing the high points, looking for connections about how you currently think about things. You can essentially retain twice as much. That makes your education twice as valuable and it doesnít take a huge amount of time.
- Interviewed for the Fall 2013 ECE Current newsletter