Faculty Recharge with Music, Sport and Creativity

Author: Kathy Mayer
By day, Saurabh Bagchi, Gerhard Klimeck, Mark Bell and Andrew Weiner focus, respectively, on distributed systems, nanoelectronic device modeling, signal processing and ultrafast optics. Their work demands deep thinking, risk taking and studied analysis. To recharge their energy and spark their creativity, each professor turns to activities that take him into entirely different worlds.

Harmonium Calms Bagchi’s Mind

When Saurabh Bagchi was in the fifth grade, he recalls, “My mom would drag me to the music school kicking and screaming. I had no desire, but she persisted.” There, he learned to play the classical music of famed Indian songwriter Rabindranath Tagore on the harmonium, a keyboard instrument powered by air forced through bellows.

Saurabh Bagchi (right): “To get great ideas, you need to drown out the noise of e-mails, administrative things you need to get done, and come to a calm state of mind.”

Today, he turns to the same instrument and music to relax and refuel.

“To get great ideas, you need to drown out the noise of e-mails, administrative things you need to get done, and come to a calm state of mind,” Bagchi says. “If I sit down and concentrate on playing, my mind almost goes to a different plane. Then my mind is better prepared for creative thoughts.”

With a repertoire of more than 2,000 Tagore songs to draw from, there’s one for every mood — worship, love, patriotism and the seasons of nature, for example. “I can start to sing a song to reflect my mood, and start playing it out on the harmonium.”

He plays alone and in a weekly music group. “It’s great when you want a moment of peace and quiet. I tell my mother occasionally that she did well in persisting.”

Like Tagore, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his work, Bagchi enjoys writing, usually short stories. “I find material from the traveling I do as part of my work. That’s a gold mine of material.”

Creativity is Key for Bell

When Mark Bell came to Purdue from California in 1989, it had been several years since he’d played guitar, an instrument he learned at age 10. “When I was a kid, I was interested in being a studio musician, so I learned many types and styles of guitar: electric, acoustic, classical, jazz, blues and instrumental rock. In college, teaching guitar was a great way to make extra money,” he says.

Mark Bell: Creativity is key in engineering and scientific research, if you're not creative, you're rehashing the same old things.

In Indiana, he began playing again. “I figured I could justify taking an hour or two a day to practice because most people watch more TV than that, and I don’t own a TV,” he says.

He’s stayed with it, and for about five years performed with a group, New Acoustic Quintet. “The idea was to move jazz onto bluegrass instruments. We tried it out at Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering and other festivals, and it was well received.”

Today, he most enjoys playing jazz and classical guitar, and composing.

“Creativity is key,” he says. “In engineering and scientific research, if you’re not creative, you’re rehashing the same old things, which is pointless. The same is true of improvisational music.”

Music takes discipline. “You have to focus and put in the effort. It’s like research. Neither comes easily.”

Recently he combined the two in work with Seymour Duncan, a company that makes guitar pickups, which translate strings’ mechanical motion into electrical signals. “I found a couple of good ECE students who are passionate guitarists to work on the project, and it’s worked out well.”

Ski Slopes, Soccer Energize Klimeck

Give Gerhard Klimeck the steep, rough terrain of a double black diamond ski slope, and his mind is immediately cleared of all but the task at hand. “It takes extreme concentration and exertion,” he says. “I can completely exhaust myself on challenging runs.” When he can’t ski, soccer fills a similar bill.

Gerhard Klimeck: Skiing and soccer get me away from work. After I focus on one of these, it lets me think afresh.

What both translate into for Klimeck, director of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology, is a clear head, he says. “Skiing and soccer get me away from work. After I focus on one of these, it let’s me think afresh.”

Klimeck takes to anything that requires physical exertion, he says.

“I love the great outdoors. Getting away helps. Seeing nature, getting different perspectives, getting distance — all those certainly help my creativity,” he says.

He learned to ski at age 15 on vacation in the Alps. “From day one I knew it would be fun, because I like speeds. I like dangerous, exhilarating things, and I always liked sports and being outside.”

Some of his favorite skiing spots include La Villa in Dolomites, Italy; and Aspen Highlands and Steamboat Springs, in Colorado.

Not all of his skiing or sport is devil-may-care these days, however. He’s taken his 5-year-old son on a green run and to the soccer field, and soon will introduce his 3-yearold daughter to the gentler slopes and fields.

Aikido Shifts Weiner’s Focus

Of aikido’s many benefits, two in particular influence the work of Andrew Weiner, the Scifres Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Andrew Weiner (right): The respect aspect (of aikido) is very important in our professional lives, too.

The first is the physical aspect. “You can work more effectively if you are healthy and feeling good,” he says. The other is the mutual benefit and respect that permeate the martial art. “The respect aspect is very important in our professional lives, too.”

Weiner first took up the rigorous, noncompetitive Japanese martial art as a seventh-grader, stepped away a while, then returned as an adult. Today, he’s chief instructor and advisor for the Purdue Aikido Club, and he’s achieved the Nidan rank, a second-degree black belt.

“Discipline is one of the positive things about it, and it also has its spontaneous aspects,” Weiner says. “On the mat, you sometimes run into situations different than what you have precisely trained for.”

Aikido demands focus. “You need to forget what else you were doing in the day, were troubled by or excited about working on, and instead focus on the activity at hand,” he says. “It’s vigorous. And you must accept that much of it is hard work. It’s not an art where you get instant gratification.”

The self-discipline aikido imposes keeps him working at it. “And that’s important in research, too. Part of research is hard work, to be topnotch and leading the way. Learning how to work hard and keep pushing is important.”