Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Princeton Engineering Dean Hailed as IEEE Top Educator

By all accounts,
Andrea J. Goldsmith is successful. The wireless communications pioneer is Princeton’s dean of engineering and applied sciences. She has launched two prosperous startups. She has had a long career in academia, is a science advisor to the U.S. president, and sits on the boards of several major companies. So it’s surprising to learn that she almost dropped out in her first year of the engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley.

“By the end of my first year, I really thought I didn’t belong in engineering, because I wasn’t doing well, and nobody thought I should be there,” acknowledges the IEEE Fellow. “During the summer break, I dusted myself off, cut down my hours from full time to part time at my job, and decided I wasn’t going to let anybody but me decide whether I should be an engineer or not.”

She kept that promise and earned a bachelor’s in engineering mathematics, then master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley. She went on to teach engineering at Stanford for more than 20 years. Her development of foundational mathematical approaches for increasing the capacity, speed, and range of wireless systems—which is what her two startups are based on—have earned her financial rewards and several recognitions including the Marconi Prize, IEEE awards for communications technology, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

But for all the honors Goldsmith has received, the one she says she cherishes most is theIEEE James H. Mulligan, Jr. Education Medal. She received this year’s Mulligan award “for educating, mentoring, and inspiring generations of students, and for authoring pioneering textbooks in advanced digital communications.” The award is sponsored by MathWorks, Pearson Education, and theIEEE Life Members Fund.

“The greatest joy of being a professor is the young people who we work with—particularly my graduate students and postdocs. I believe all my success as an academic is due to them,” she says. “They are the ones who came with the ideas, and had the passion, grit, resilience, and creativity to partner with me in creating my entire research portfolio.

“Mentoring young people means mentoring all of them, not just their professional dimensions,” she says. “To be recognized in the citation that I’ve inspired, mentored, and educated generations of students fills my heart with joy.”

The importance of mentors

Growing up in Los Angeles, Goldsmith was interested in European politics and history as well as culture and languages. In her senior year of high school, she decided to withdraw to travel around Europe, and she earned a high school equivalency diploma.

Because she excelled in math and science in high school, her father—a mechanical engineering professor at UC Berkeley—suggested she consider majoring in engineering. When she returned to the states, she took her father’s advice and enrolled in UC Berkeley’s engineering program. She didn’t have all the prerequisites, so she had to take some basic math and physics courses. She also took classes in languages and philosophy.

In addition to being a full-time student, Goldsmith worked a full-time job as a waitress to pay her own way through college because, she says, “I didn’t want my dad to influence what I was going to study because he was paying for it.”

Her grades suffered from the stress of juggling school and work. In addition, being one of the few female students in the program, she says, she encountered a lot of implicit and explicit bias by her professors and classmates. Her sense of belonging also suffered, because there were no female faculty members and few women teaching assistants in the engineering program.

“I don’t believe that engineering as a profession can achieve its full potential or can solve thewicked challenges facing society with technology if we don’t have diverse people who can contribute to those solutions.”

“There was an attitude that if the women weren’t doing great then they should pick another major. Whereas if the guys weren’t doing great, that was fine,” she says. “It’s a societal message that if you don’t see women or diverse people in your program, you think ‘maybe it isn’t for me, maybe I don’t belong here.’ That’s reinforced by the implicit bias of the faculty and your peers.”

This and her poor grades led her to consider dropping out of the engineering major. But during her sophomore year, she began to turn things around. She focused on the basics courses, learned better study habits, and cut back the hours at her job.

“I realized that I could be an engineering major if that’s what I wanted. That was a big revelation,” she says. Plus, she admits, her political science classes were becoming boring compared with her engineering courses. She decided that anything she could do with a political science degree she could do with an engineering degree, but not vice versa, so she stuck with engineering.

She credits two mentors for encouraging her to stay in the program. One was Elizabeth J. Strouse, Goldsmith’s linear algebra teaching assistant and the first woman she met at the school who was pursuing a STEM career. She became Goldsmith’s role model and friend. Strouse is now a math professor at the Institut de Matheématique at the University of Bordeaux, in France.

The other was her undergraduate advisor, Aram J. Thomasian. The professor of statistics and electrical engineering advised Goldsmith to apply her mathematical knowledge to either communications or information theory.

“Thomasian absolutely pegged an area that inspired me and also had really exciting practical applications,” she says. “That goes to show how early mentors can really make a difference in steering young people in the right direction.”

After graduating in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering mathematics, Goldsmith spent a few years working in industry before returning to get her graduate degrees. She began her long academic career in 1994 as an assistant professor of engineering at Caltech. She joined Stanford’s electrical engineering faculty in 1999 and left for Princeton in 2020.

a group of people smiling for the camera against a black background; woman in middle is wearing a medal around her neck

Andrea Goldsmith proudly displays her IEEE James H. Mulligan, Jr. Education Medal at this year’s IEEE Honors Ceremony. She is accompanied by IEEE President-Elect Kathleen Kramer and IEEE President Tom Couglin.

Robb Cohen

Commercializing adaptive wireless communications

While at Stanford, Goldsmith conducted groundbreaking research in wireless communications. She is credited with discovering adaptive modulation techniques, which allow network designers to align the speed at which data is sent with the speed a wireless channel can support while network conditions and channel quality fluctuate. Her techniques led to a reduction of network disruptions, laid the foundation for Internet of Things applications, and enabled faster Wi-Fi speeds. She has been granted 38 U.S. patents for her work.

To commercialize her research, she helped found Quantenna Communications, in San Jose, Calif., in 2005 and served as its CTO. The startup’s technology enabled video to be distributed in the home over Wi-Fi at data rates of 600 megabits per second. The company went public in 2016 and was acquired by ON Semiconductor in 2019.

In 2010, she helped found another communications company,
Plume Design, in Palo Alto, Calif., where she also was CTO. Plume was first to develop adaptive Wi-Fi, a technology that uses machine learning to understand how your home’s bandwidth needs change during the day and adjusts to meet them.

With both Quantenna and Plume, she could have left Stanford to become their long-term CTO, but decided not to because, she says, “I just love the research mission of universities in advancing the frontiers of knowledge and the broader service mission of universities to make the world a better place.

“My heart is so much in the university; I can’t imagine ever leaving academia.”

The importance of diversity in engineering

Goldsmith has been an active IEEE volunteer for many years. One of her most important accomplishments, she says, was launching the
IEEE Board of Directors Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which she chairs.

“We put in place a lot of programs and initiatives that mattered to a lot of people and that have literally changed the face of the IEEE,” she says.

Even though several organizations and universities have recently disbanded their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, DEI is important, she says.

“As a society, we need to ensure that every person can achieve their full potential,” she says. “And as a profession, whether it’s engineering, law, medicine, or government, you need diverse ideas, perspectives, and experiences to thrive.

“My work to enhance diversity and inclusion in the engineering profession has really been about excellence,” she says. “I don’t believe that engineering as a profession can achieve its full potential or can solve the
wicked challenges facing society with technology if we don’t have diverse people who can contribute to those solutions.”

She points out that she came into engineering with a diverse set of perspectives she gained from being a woman and traveling through Europe as a student.

“If we have a very narrow definition of what excellence is or what merit is, we’re going to leave out a lot of very capable, strong people who can bring different ideas, out-of-box thinking, and other dimensions of excellence to the roles,” she says. “And that hurts our overarching goals.

“When I think back to my first year of college, when DEI didn’t exist, I almost left the program,” she adds. “That would have been really sad for me, and maybe for the profession too if I wasn’t in engineering.”

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