An Illuminating Career

Richard Schwartz reflects on the bright spots in a long career

He taught hundreds of collegians throughout his 40-plus years at Purdue University, yet Richard Schwartz most often saw himself in the role of student, not professor.

"I learned more from my students—and the questions they asked—than they ever learned from me," says Schwartz, who joined the Purdue faculty in 1964 and retired in December.

Passion for knowledge is another key to Schwartz's career success. Surround yourself with very bright people, he advises.

After earning a BS from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and his SM and ScD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Schwartz was hired by Purdue as a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He was drawn to the engineering program's outstanding reputation, and encouraged by a respected mentor.

"My friend and major professor, David White at MIT, was a consultant to Purdue at the time, and also urged me to interview here," Schwartz recalls. "My wife and I are Wisconsin natives, so the opportunity to raise our family in the Midwest was a plus."

Early in his career, Schwartz contributed to a significant engineering department transition—a curriculum shift throughout the late 1960s and early 70s from experience-based education to science-based. "With a strong grasp of the sciences that underlie engineering, our students could grow along with changes in the field throughout their careers," he explains.

Simultaneously, Purdue began building the strength of its graduate program. Research opportunities multiplied and, in addition to serving as advisor to many of the department's brightest students, Schwartz consistently honed his research niche—solar cell energy.

In July 1995, Schwartz accepted the position of dean of the Schools of Engineering (now the College of Engineering). He served in this capacity until 2001, a six-year span again characterized by significant progress. A major construction plan, first drafted in 1998-99, literally changed the horizon of the engineering campus. "There was a great need to improve our facilities in terms of new buildings, laboratories, and equipment," says Schwartz. "From a physical standpoint, it's been very rewarding to see how far engineering has come."

As dean, Schwartz also prioritized establishment of endowed chairs for the schools' outstanding professors.

Throughout his career, Schwartz's commitment to education has been equaled by a passion for research, and his expertise in the field of photovoltaics garnered numerous awards and recognitions. In 1987, he was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) for his research work on the analysis, design, and development of high-intensity silicon solar cells and, in 1988, received the IEEE William Cherry Award for contributions to the photovoltaics field.

"Development of solar cell energy has been slow and incremental, but I believe we're on the threshold of major changes and, within the next 10 to 20 years, solar cells will supply much of our electrical power," says Schwartz, referring to progressions toward thinner, more efficient silicon solar cells and designs that utilize lenses and mirrors to concentrate sunlight.

Retirement represents new thresholds for Schwartz. Although he'll continue his research and praises Purdue as "a wonderful place to spend a career," other destinations beckon: specifically, cross-country road trips to visit his 21 grandchildren—any one of whom could be a future College of Engineering student.

"Today's students are every bit as bright and hard-working as those I taught 40 years ago," he says. "They've been a continuing source of inspiration to me."

-Jan Mathew