ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

Perspectives from the Department Head

Scott Midkiff (Photograph by John McCormick)

Scott Midkiff Department Head

It is my great honor to now serve as department head of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and to provide this introduction to our 2010 annual report. This report summarizes the many notable accomplishments of our students and faculty. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a glimpse into just a few of the innovations in research, education, and outreach that reflect the great potential of the department. It is this potential, the opportunity, and the challenges that we face that make my job exciting.

I look forward to serving the 70-plus faculty members, the approximately 1200 undergraduate and graduate students, and the thousands of alumni and friends of the department as we strive for even higher quality, even more significant impact, and even greater innovation.

While increased national rankings, research funding, and SAT and GRE scores for our applicants are important and necessary goals, we are driven by more pressing and more important challenges. I assert that electrical and computer engineering has never been more important than it is right now for both economic vitality and societal good. The National Academy of Engineering formed a committee to identify Grand Challenges for Engineering for the 21st Century. If you are not familiar with this list of 14 Engineering Grand Challenges, I urge you to visit the informative web site at While one may argue that the list is incomplete or that there are other challenges that are more “grand,” the list does illustrate the important and difficult challenges facing the world that require technically innovative solutions. Finding solutions to the grand challenges will require the expertise of multidisciplinary teams of engineers, scientists, and policy makers. But, to varying degrees, the talents and contributions of electrical and computer engineers are essential to new breakthroughs to solve these grand challenges.

I categorize the 14 Grand Challenges into five general domains:

1 The domain of energy and the environment is vital to a sustainable future. Virginia Tech’s ECE department has world-class expertise in power electronics, power systems, and sensors for harsh environments that are necessary to solve challenges such as making solar energy economical.

2 In the domain of critical infrastructures, the department is making contributions in many areas, including power and energy systems, telecommunications and networking infrastructure, sensors and embedded systems for structural health monitoring, and rail transportation.

3 The domain of healthcare and biotechnology is clearly important as our population ages and healthcare dominates political discourse. ECE researchers, often in collaboration with researchers in other disciplines, are making important advances in medical imaging, synthetic biology, bio-MEMS, and computing infrastructure and methods that can help to solve challenges such as engineering better medicines or reverse engineering of the brain.

4 The fourth general domain is safety and security, which includes the grand challenge of securing cyberspace. ECE faculty and students are creating innovative hardware for the secure implementation of cryptographic algorithms, methods for locating wireless attackers, and programs for educating the next generation of engineers and scientist for the intelligence community.

5 We are striving to both transform and to be transformed by innovations in education, research, and collaboration, the fifth domain of the grand challenges. ECE technological developments promise to dramatically increase the performance and efficiency of cyberinfrastructure, which are the tools for scientific discovery, and advance personalized learning through the use of the Tablet PC and other educational technologies.

The challenge and the opportunity for the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is to make the fundamental discoveries, develop the transformational innovations, and ensure the well prepared future ECE workforce necessary to meet the Grand Challenges of Engineering and find solutions to other important problems to help ensure the prosperity of the nation and a sustainable future for the world.

The future of engineering is clearly multidisciplinary. ECE researchers are already working across disciplinary boundaries. Engineering will rely more and more on cyber systems, including high performance computing that is enabling new approaches to discovery and innovation, plus embedded systems that underlie new cyber-enabled engineered systems such as the smart grid and cognitive wireless networks.

In the future, the nation will need more electrical and computer engineers with more advanced preparation, and exhibiting greater diversity. We must expand the ECE student pipeline from K-12 to college and from the undergraduate to the graduate level. To introduce undergraduates to advanced study, we offer undergraduate research experiences across the department, including an NSF-funded REU site in wireless. We seek to engage even more of our best undergraduates in research. And, we strive to better prepare our students to work in global, multidisciplinary teams and to creatively integrate knowledge to solve problems through “hand-on, minds-on” learning.

This annual report shows that ECE faculty and students are working very hard to seize the opportunities before us. It is also clear that more must be done. This is our challenge. Despite declining state support for higher education, we are not standing still. More and more, we control our own destiny. We are establishing creative partnerships with industry, government, and others in academia, as well as with our alumni and friends, to find the resources to move forward. And, we are using these resources efficiently to realize quality, impact, and innovation. We must, and we will, lead the way in ECE research, education, and outreach.

I would like to thank our many partners in this pursuit — the Bradley Endowment, our industry supporters, our sponsors, and, especially, our alumni and friends. The department is especially appreciative of our ECE Advisory Board, chaired by Gino Manzo, and the advisory boards for research groups and centers. The department is indebted to James Thorp, our previous department head, who left the ECE department both intellectually strong and fiscally sound. I am especially grateful to Jim for the wisdom and knowledge that he shared so generously before and after I became department head. I wish to thank the ECE faculty and staff, who do so much for the department, and Dean Benson and the College team. All have been very helpful to me as I learn the ropes of the new job. And last, but certainly not least, I thank my wife, Sofia, and my children, Victoria and Erik, for their support in the move back to Blacksburg and for their understanding of the demands associated with my position.

We welcome two new members to our faculty, Mantu Hudait in microelectronics and Paolo Mattavelli in power electronics. Mantu and Paolo are introduced at right.

In closing, I note the passing of William A. Blackwell on March 12, 2010. Bill was department head from 1966 to 1981, during which time he led the transformation of the department into its modern form as an international leader in ECE education and research. Bill’s life of service to the department, the profession, and the nation exemplifies Ut Prosim and serves as a model for us all.

Scott Midkiff

The National Academy of Engineering’s Committee on Engineering’s Grand Challenges developed the following list of 14 key areas needing engineering solutions.

1 Make solar energy economical
2 Provide energy from fusion
3 Provide access to clean water
4 Reverse-engineer the brain
5 Advance personalized learning
6 Develop carbon sequestration methods
7 Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
8 Restore and improve urban infrastructure
9 Advance health informatics
10 Prevent nuclear terror
11 Engineer better medicines
12 Enhance virtual reality
13 Manage the nitrogen cycle
14 Secure cyberspace