Trend Setters: Leading by Risky Example

Author: By Linda Thomas Terhune
Research, by its very nature, involves investigating the unknown with the hope of fruitful discovery.

At one end of the spectrum is basic research, based on fundamentals. At the other end is risk-taking research, which takes a leap of faith and can reap big rewards, but can also result in failure. This so-called transformative research is now seen as vital to the future of global innovation and prosperity.

In 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report titled “Advancing Research in Science and Engineering” that addressed two issues deemed essential for the nation’s research efforts: support for early-career faculty and encouragement of high-risk, high-reward, potentially transformative research.

“Many concerned parties have focused on overall levels of federal funding as the means of sustaining America’s competitive advantage,” the report stated. “While funding levels are important, money alone cannot guarantee preeminence. …America must invest in young scientists and transformative research in order to sustain its ability to compete in a global environment,” the report stated.

In its efforts to provide solutions to global grand challenges, the College of Engineering supports this initiative through a strategic commitment to supporting risk-taking research. As stated in the college’s strategic plan: “Taking risks, fueling innovation by creating an environment that stimulates curiosity, fosters risk taking, and provides intellectual space and freedom to explore and evolve ideas to see where they lead.”

What follows are the stories of three members of the Purdue Engineering community whose spirit, talent, and pioneering research have set them on transformative journeys. One is a veteran researcher recognized as a global leader in optical fiber communications, the second is an early-career faculty member on the frontiers of the emerging discipline of engineering education, and the third is a materials science engineering alumnus who is blazing trails as an assistant professor at the University of Florida.

Transformative research: “Endeavors which promise extraordinary outcomes, such as revolutionizing entire disciplines, creating entirely new fields, or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives — in other words, those endeavors which have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science, engineering, and innovation. Supporting more transformative research is of critical importance in the fast-paced, science- and technology-intensive world of the 21st century.”

—The National Science Board, 2007

Andrew Weiner

Scifres Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Andrew Weiner

As a young researcher at Bellcore (Bell Communications Research Laboratory), Andrew Weiner took on a project that was little understood. He was in ultrafast optics, and was charged with figuring out how to use ultrafast laser pulses on the femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) time scale to reshape and control light intensity. He didn’t flinch.

“At the time, I had a vague idea that if we could control how light passes over fibers, we could control it to help communicate faster,” Weiner says of the concept, which, in 1984, was some 20 years ahead of its time. “There were a dozen different applications and I could see a few.”

Weiner was not afraid of exploring risky, unknown areas at the time and still isn’t 25 years later. His approach has paid off with findings that have positioned him as a leader in ultrafast optics. He’s gotten there via a route that some would say is unconventional and not without professional risk.

After completing his doctorate at MIT, Weiner joined Bellcore, where he was among a group of young researchers on the fast track. He was soon named manager of Ultrafast Optics and Optical Signal Processing Research. In 1992, as the telecommunications industry underwent significant change, he left Bellcore to join the Purdue Engineering faculty.

Weiner admits that he marches to his own drum in terms of pursuing funding, which he views negatively as dictating the direction of research.

“I have often done things because I thought they were cool and had the possibility of success,” he says. “You can say, ‘This is what (the agency) wants,’ but if you do, you’re letting someone else define what’s important. Often, there are various fashions that come up and everyone jumps on them. By and large, throughout my career, I have resisted doing that. When these things come up I ask, ‘Can I contribute something uniquely to this? Is this my strength?’ Why should I waste my effort if I don’t think I’m going to win?”

That attitude apparently hasn’t hindered him; in his 17 years at Purdue, he has received more than 70 research grants. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering; holds 10 patents, all related to ultrafast optical signal processing; and saw the 2009 publication of his textbook, “Ultrafast Optics.” In 2009, he was named one of 10 National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The award carries funding of over $4 million for the next five years.

“The DOD is putting money into fundamental research that is broadly relevant to DOD business. It may not produce anything now, but might in five or 10 years,” he says. “We can use fast lasers to manipulate electrical signals. The research could impact radar systems and wireless communications.”

As a senior faculty member, Weiner mentors both graduate students and junior faculty. He advises them to temper their approach to risk, at least until they are through the job placement and tenure processes.

“Taking some risks is OK. Shooting for a home run is OK. But that can be only part of a research portfolio. If you have a big idea and want to go for it, and that’s the only thing you’re doing, you’ll be in trouble if you don’t get there. You have to come up with a plan so you have the capability of getting some big results but also guarantee some rate of return. Even with a home run, you’re going to have a bunch of singles and doubles,” he says.

As chairman of the National Academy of Engineering’s 2009 and 2010 Frontiers of Engineering symposia, Weiner is working with rising stars from industry, government and academia. He was among the emerging leaders chosen to participate in 1998. Returning in his leadership capacity in 2009, he suggested one of the four focus areas: micro and nano photonics and cutting-edge research on small optical devices. The 2010 symposium will include sessions on cloud computing, biosensing and bioactuation engineering, and music and autonomous space systems.

“Researchers have to be able to generate some impact. When I was at Bellcore, the question wasn’t, ‘Is this good science?’ It was impact. It had to be high quality. Someone had to care about it. It had to influence the field or move things forward. If you are able to generate an impact, you might really be successful.”

Monica Cox

Assistant Professor of Engineering Education

Monica Cox

A quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Monica Cox’s home page gives a glimpse into a personal philosophy and determination that is leading the young engineering education faculty member into the limelight: “Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.”

In January, perseverance and a dedication to transforming the way that engineering is taught paid off when Cox, who joined the Purdue faculty in 2005, accepted a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest recognition given to young investigators. She is also a recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early CAREER Development Award and was one of 49 scholars and educators selected this fall by the NSF for its inaugural Frontiers of Engineering Education Symposium.

It was as a high school student at an Auburn University summer program that Cox first learned about engineering. She determined that engineers could help solve society’s problems and settled on a career goal: “I wanted to use math and science to improve society,” she recalls. Now, as a rising star in the world of engineering education, Cox is ensuring that students receive all the tools they need to help solve society’s problems.

Cox’s decision to focus on engineering education was influenced by her undergraduate experience as a math student at the all-women’s Spelman College in Atlanta. There, she found small classes and students empowered to achieve. Her experiences were different once she entered the master’s program in industrial engineering at the University of Alabama.

“When I moved to a larger engineering environment, I wondered why pedagogical practices were different and why there weren’t more women and minorities in engineering graduate courses,” she says. These questions motivated her to pursue a doctorate in leadership and policy studies with a concentration in higher education administration at Vanderbilt University.

Her research focuses on assessment and evaluation with the goal of better understanding how to prepare graduate engineering students for careers in academia and industry. Much of her work concentrates on deciphering students’ perception of the discipline and learning environment.

“I think that many students do not understand the opportunities that are available to them when they pursue graduate engineering studies. …If more graduate students understood how their research could impact society, then their enthusiasm and research, and the translation of this research into practice, might increase,” she says.

Cox translates data from experts into valid and reliable tools that can explore the extent to which engineering doctoral students identify with expert-identified norms, skills, and attributes. She is also studying pedagogical perceptions of graduate teaching assistants and the perceptions of undergraduates who are taught by teaching assistants. And she is interested in the development and validation of classroom instruments and tools for use within postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms and laboratories.

Cox began exploring engineering curricula at Vanderbilt, where she conducted pedagogical research in the VaNTH Engineering Research Center (ERC), the first NSF-funded ERC devoted to bioengineering educational technologies. As a member of the assessment and evaluation thrust of the ERC, she worked closely with learning scientists, learning technologists, bioengineers, and educational psychologists to explore the benefits of postsecondary classroom instruction developed around principles of the “How People Learn” framework. The framework is designed to optimize learning within classroom environments.

Cox believes strongly that engineering schools should be open to transformative innovations in education in order to obtain the most creative solutions for national and global problems. “Such encouragement can result in increased STEM innovations, a more diverse workforce that understands how to work effectively and efficiently within different groups in society, and workers who are comfortable with ambiguity and change,” she says.

Cox says the national recognition she has received for her research is affirmation for her, both personally and professionally.

“Both sides of my family have strong faith and have taught me that nothing is impossible through faith and diligence. This award represents my commitment to fulfilling my call in life and to making a difference in the lives of others. I hope the award gives me opportunities to let others know that you don’t have to be limited by your ethnicity, gender, or any other factor. It also confirms that the American dream is possible for anyone.”

Jacob Jones (BSME ’99, MSME ’01, PhD ’04)

Assistant Professor
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
University of Florida

Jacob Jones

At the age of 13, Jacob Jones left his central Indiana home to begin his engineering career. He traveled two hours north to a two-week science and engineering camp at Purdue, where he was transfixed with the electrical engineering projects. These appealed to his sideline interest of writing BASIC programming on the Commodore 64 at his elementary school. Little did he know that years later he’d translate this interest into a mastery of electroceramic materials.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, Jones has translated his childhood interests into a career that is propelling him to the forefront of the engineering discipline. He has been recognized with the nation’s highest honors for young faculty — a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Development Award (2007) and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2009). The Presidential award recognizes researchers in “pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and a commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.” Winning scientists and engineers receive up to a five-year research grant to further their study in support of critical government missions.

Jones returned to Purdue several years after engineering camp to earn a BS (’99) in mechanical engineering. He then worked for two years as a product engineer at Delta Faucet Co. and studied for a master’s degree (‘01), and rounded out his education on the West Lafayette campus with a doctorate in materials engineering (’04). “It was there that I discovered I could build things from the sub-nanometer to micron-size scales using crystallography and microstructure design,” he says.

From Purdue, he went to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, to conduct research as an NSF International Research Fellow and then to Iowa State University. He joined the University of Florida faculty in 2006.

The primary aim of Jones’ research is to develop structure-property relationships in electroactive ceramics with a particular focus on the mechanics and dynamics of domain walls and emphasis on the use of advanced diffraction tools and techniques for in situ characterization. The research focuses on understanding how crystal chemistry, crystallography, atomic defects, and microstructure affect the macroscopic properties of electroceramic materials. The particular electroceramic materials he investigates couple electrical, mechanical, magnetic, and thermal fields. For example, piezoelectric materials couple mechanical stress/strain to voltage. The materials are used in applications such as impact and displacement sensors, actuators, microelectromechanical systems, diesel fuel injectors, vibrational energy harvesting, nonvolatile memories, sonar, and ultrasound.

Jones was nominated for the Presidential award by the Department of Defense’s Army Research Office. The project supported by the award is “Domain Wall Evolution in Phase Transforming Oxides,” which focuses on smart materials that can convert energy from one form into another; sound into electricity, for example. The materials have military applications in reconnaissance, navigation, surveillance and guidance systems.

As a researcher recognized as an emerging science and technology leader, and one capable of having transformative impact in the discipline of engineering, Jones is keenly aware of his responsibility to nurture future scientists and engineers in an environment that supports creativity. These men and women, he says, must be “oriented towards collaboration and capable of producing engineering solutions and scientific breakthroughs that take advantage of global resources and are environmentally and socio-economically advantageous on the global level.”