OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Culture of excellence

Published Date: 
Friday, December 2, 2011

Un-Ku Moon is no slouch—his outstanding achievements in electrical engineering have earned him top recognition in his field — but he would rather talk about how great his students are.

One such student, Pavan Hanumolu, was so good that the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) decided to buck tradition and hire one of their own graduate students into a faculty position.

 “He is amazingly good. Better than me,” Moon says.

Hanumolu is just one EECS faculty member who embodies the school’s culture of research and teaching excellence. Together with its collegial atmosphere, the EECS culture is attracting ranks of high-achieving young scholars, who are joining the school’s senior faculty to earn recognition from both students and the research community.

Hanumolu is on a fast track for recognition himself, doing revolutionary research in high speed solid-state circuits that use minimal power, which earned him five publications last year and four this year at the premiere conference in his field—an exceptional accomplishment.  But he shies away from taking the credit himself and instead hands it over to his students.

“They are way smarter than me,” he says.

The dual emphasis on teaching and research accounts for the amazing number of faculty (nearly half) in EECS who have received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from the National Science Foundation—a prestigious five-year grant given to promising new faculty who have demonstrated excellence and innovation in both teaching and research.

But what really convinced Hanumolu he wanted to stay at OSU, despite opportunities to go to bigger-name schools, was the friendly atmosphere.

“I always felt that [the senior faculty] were looking over me, not looking down on me,” he says.

John Conley, who was a new professor with Hanumolu in 2007, says it was the friendly attitude that drew him to OSU as well. And not just within EECS—he has also found willing collaborators in chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, materials science and forestry.

“OSU has a collaborative environment, and there are no big egos—people get along very well. It's been really helpful,” he says.

What tipped the scales for Conley to come here though was the presence of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI)—an Oregon based research center that fosters collaboration between academic, business, and government organizations, where he is a signature faculty fellow.

He says their support has been invaluable for getting his research program and novel materials and devices underway.

An avid mountain biker and backpacker, Conley likes to push himself to the extreme in work as well as play. And even though he worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab where visits from Nobel laureates were a common occurrence, he is just as impressed with his colleagues at OSU.

“They are really go-getters—people are winning young faculty awards, establishing major research centers, and publishing papers in prestigious places. It's really an exciting place to be,” he says.

One of those go-getters is certainly Ted Brekken who was named the 2011 Outstanding Young Engineer by the IEEE Power and Energy Society (IEEE PES), a branch of the world’s largest engineering association. The international award recognizes his outstanding achievements in teaching, research, and outreach to the community.

The chance to work with one of the pioneering researchers in renewable energy, Annette von Jouanne, brought Brekken to OSU in 2006, where he co-directs the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewable Facility with her.

Brekken is driven by the opportunity to make a difference in the world through his research, and he shares that enthusiasm through his teaching at all levels, including public lectures.

“I enjoy teaching to the general public and I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can share information about how we use energy and how the grid works because it’s a critically important issue for people to understand,” Brekken says.

Terri Fiez, EECS school head, says having a broad impact is expected of the entire EECS faculty. “We believe you really can do both world-class research and be a leader in innovative undergraduate education. This sets OSU apart from other top engineering programs,” she says.

--Rachel Robertson