Archives for category: Research

You, my colleagues, are world-renowned researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, and leaders.   I’d feel presumptuous offering you my thoughts on how to pursue research, entrepreneurship, etc.   I might as well share my thoughts on basketball with Coach K.   Thus, I’m going to focus on an issue that I perhaps spend more time thinking about: why I love my job.  And yes, I do love my job – and not just because I can sit outside with a cup of coffee discussing new research ideas with brilliant students and call it “work.”

As professors in a department like Duke ECE, we have an unusual ability to shape our jobs.  We get to choose our research topics, our collaborators, our students, and the classes we teach.   We control our research group structures, and we can adjust how much time we devote to each aspect of our jobs.   We can even control how much time we devote to work and which hours we choose to work.  

Given that there is more that I’d like to do than I have time for doing well, I have tried to shape my job such that my time and energy are spent on the activities that I find most rewarding.

Mentoring Students

If I had to single out the part of my job that is the most fulfilling, it is seeing my former students succeed.  To paraphrase a co-advisor of mine, our most important products as professors are our students.  We have papers we’re particularly proud of, but we end up being most proud of our students.    

I have had the great joy of mentoring many wonderful PhD students and undergraduates.  I enjoy this part of my job and thus try to maximize my time for it.   (I have had a few students who were difficult and not terribly enjoyable to advise, but they were thankfully in the minority.)  I have intentionally kept my group fairly small—4 or 5 PhD students and 1 or 2 undergraduate research assistants—so that I have enough time to devote to each of them.  My meetings with my students are usually the highlights of my week, and I don’t believe I could manage more students and still have the same kind of relationships with them.  I fully realize that there are faculty, including colleagues here in Duke ECE, who can have more students and easily find time for all of them; I’m just not one of them.  Perhaps my group size will increase when my kids are older and want less of my time.  My group size decision is a conscious trade-off: there are certain projects that just can’t be done with a group of this size.


I very much enjoy teaching students who are genuinely interested in the topic, and I’m happy to devote time for that.  I still get a kick out of that moment when the students realize that computers aren’t magic.   At Duke, I’m extraordinarily lucky to teach a lot of superb students and relatively few slackers.  I have found it tremendously rewarding when former students contact me or visit me to tell me about how they have used what they learned in their jobs and in graduate school.   I do worry about eventually getting bored teaching the same courses over and over, but I hope that alternating among four different courses helps to stave that problem off.

The only part of teaching I dislike—other than grading, which I absolutely hate and thus delegate to TAs—is handling the requests for extensions, special consideration, make-up work, etc.   Early on I discovered I could solve this problem by having a single one-size-fits-all policy (summary: “No”), and I could live with being considered “inflexible” (or other less tactful words one finds in one’s teacher/course evaluations).  Then I discovered that I could pitch this policy as fairness, since how could I possibly judge the relative merits of 50 different excuses in a way that’s fair to all?   Students bought that explanation and it has saved me time that I can devote to other activities.  The only drawback is receiving less fodder for my Fault Tolerant Computing course, because I’m no longer told about as many instances of computers failing (or being stolen or possessed by gremlins) the night before assignments are due.

Service: Committees and Undergraduate Advising

Service is a necessary part of the job, but I doubt there are many of us who joined the department because of a burning desire to serve on the graduate studies committee.   But, given that service is necessary, the key has been finding service jobs where I care about the outcome and where I may have something unique to offer.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on IT committees because I rely on the IT infrastructure here and I’m often among the first ones to break a new service.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on a joint CS/CE committee because the relationship between CS and Computer Engineering (and ECE, as a whole) is important to me.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on faculty search committees because I care about who my new colleagues will be.  All of these service jobs were preferable to alternatives, some of which I wasn’t clever enough to escape.

Early on, I discovered that undergraduate advising was a bimodal experience.  I enjoyed advising ECE/CS double majors, and it was rewarding to be able to offer them useful career guidance and connect them to colleagues in academia and industry.  However, it was miserable to advise BME majors, because I had nothing to offer them.   A typical student question was something like “So, Prof. Sorin, what do you think of BME 273?”  I don’t think about BME 273.   (I offered less grouchy, but no more insightful, responses to the students.)   At one point it occurred to me that I could ask promising ECE/CS double majors in my classes to switch to be my advisees.  The key is making sure I take on enough new ECE/CS advisees so that the DUS doesn’t think I need any other advisees.   I tend to end up with perhaps a few more advisees than I’d otherwise have if I was passive, but the advising is far more rewarding this way.   (Yes, I realize that this approach isn’t scalable, so don’t all start doing this!)


One of the many aspects of Duke that drew me here was seeing that faculty could be highly successful and have families and lives.   I cherish the ability to leave Duke early and be with my kids from around 4:30 until their bedtime, knowing that I can get my work done later.    I consciously categorize my work into “must do at Duke” and “could do from home.”   I like that you, my colleagues, care about what a faculty member accomplishes without needing to compete to see who can spend the most hours visibly working at Duke.

Personal Freedom vs. Departmental Service

So everything is great, right?  We can shape our jobs in a way that we can be successful and apply our limited time and energy towards the activities we find most rewarding.  But what if we all shape our jobs to suit ourselves?  One problem is that we’d be unlikely to have a DGS, given that few of us would prioritize being DGS in terms of how rewarding it is (compared to, say, research).  OK, so we can “incentivize” jobs like this with perks, although I’ve not yet figured out what perks would be required to persuade me to take on that job.  But what about serving on committees?  What about teaching large, core undergraduate courses (instead of small graduate seminars)?  The operation of an academic department like Duke ECE fails Game Theory 101; the incentives are set up in a way that almost completely discourages time spent on service.  We are rewarded for our research contributions—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, our teaching—and thus time spent on service is clearly counter-productive.

So why does our department (usually) function well despite the presence of disincentives to service?  It’s because of you, my conscientious colleagues.  We tend to do “the right thing” even when it’s not in our interests.  It certainly helps that departmental leadership publicly recognizes our service, but I doubt most of us serve on committees because we’ll get recognized for that service.  It seems like we should need to readjust the incentive system to encourage service, but I have not reconciled this goal with the justifiable all-importance of research. 

Concluding Thoughts

Many colleagues of mine at other universities have left academia to take jobs in industry.  Although some of them left for the understandable reason of wanting a new challenge or for financial reasons, others have told me about how they couldn’t find enough time to do the parts of their jobs that they enjoyed the most.  I try to keep that thought in mind when I find myself drifting (“hey, that looks like it could be fun”) instead of being strategic with my time.   Perhaps that’s why I still love my job.


When I first visited Duke University more than 10 years ago as a faculty candidate, our current Chair, Larry Carin, was the host for my visit. I met several of our faculty members who have been at Duke for some time, as well as senior faculty members that had just joined the department (then-Chair April Brown and then-Director of the Fitzpatrick Center David Brady, among others). What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm that prevailed in the department, about the effort under way to establish a great academic unit with the core values of outstanding education and prominent research. As the recruiting process progressed, Larry recommended a book to me, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which was a very popular title at the time in business management. The book summarizes a research effort analyzing the case of 11 companies that have done extremely well compared to their peers and the general stock market for a period of over 15 years, trying to identify the critical elements that led to building such successful organizations. It was clear to me why Larry was interested in such a study, as this topic was in the minds of everyone in the ECE department at that period in time.

While it is impossible to tell the true predictive value of these types of postmortem analysis, there were some interesting and compelling points that were worth discussing. I certainly was intrigued by the prospect of building up a strong research effort and new educational initiatives in the department, and decided to come join the excitement. Having 10 years to look back upon our department that has gained substantial momentum along the way, it is an interesting exercise to see what aspect of those analyses were relevant to our department’s current path to success. The book describes six characteristics of these success stories, but I will ponder upon three or four that might be directly relevant to academic institution like ours.

Before I put together my random thoughts on these issues, I would like to share the insight some of our colleagues have shared in the “ECE Corner Office” section: I most strongly resonate with Richard Fair’s story on “Change, or Die”. All of our operating environment changes over time, either fast or slow, and the thriving organizations derive their success from how well they adapt to these changing conditions. Such changes often pose threats to successful organizations, yet provide opportunities for upcoming organizations to compete. All of these factors of success cannot be considered unless in the context of constant change: the Roman Empire did not last forever, and neither will the era of those dominant Engineering research/educational institutions of today, no matter how strong you feel their grip is in the current environment. Everything changes, and there lies our opportunity to build a great organization.

The first topic is the type of leadership that is common to these organizations with success. The authors term the type of leadership “Level-5”, characterized by individuals with extreme personal humility and intense professional will. They are the most modest people who never let her/his own ego get in the way of the success of the team/organization, nor quibble about trivial credit taking for personal gains (as the authors quote Harry Truman, “you can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”). At the same time, they move with incredible intensity when it comes to achieving success for the team or organization. I have personally been blessed with having two mentors I can confidently identify as “Level-5 leaders” throughout my professional training process prior to Duke (one is my thesis advisor, and the other is my manager of three years at Bell Labs). While they do not strive to attract the flashes of stardom, they focus on building the core ingredients of success with ferocious will, eventually achieving outstanding success. Many Nobel Laureates I know in person also feature such a leadership: throughout their career, they do not explicitly pursue the glories of Nobel Prize, but work tenaciously to achieve scientific progress which eventually lead them to such an honor. Look around our department, and you will see many such leaders quietly building up incredible momentum, whether it is the novelty in their cutting-edge research efforts or means to educate the future leaders of our society: I am sure these efforts will eventually lead to outcomes that will have a huge impact in our world.

The second topic is about the process of building the organization by attracting outstanding talent, which many of us can see as an important procedure towards a great organization. We typically struggle with the role of strategic planning to think about where the organization (department) should go, and finding adequate people with the right talent to achieve those strategic goals. One of their findings is somewhat striking (and counter-intuitive): they find in these success stories, that instead of defining a strategic direction and then getting people to get them there, these leaders have done things in the exactly opposite order. Making analogies to people getting on a bus to go to a great place, “they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus), and then figured out where to drive it”. They always begin with “who” rather than “what”, which make it easier to change directions and adapt to the changes that one will inevitably face down the road (remember the “Change or Die” comment from Richard!!). What is an important field of research will inevitably change in ten years, and we want people who can be successful in those future fields. More desirably, we want to have people who can define what will be an important field of research ten years from now, and naturally be the leaders in those fields by driving those changes. I believe we have done exceptionally well on this front. Looking at our faculty members that have joined the department since I came in 2004, we have assembled an outstanding group of people who have become leaders in the field since. We certainly got the right people on the bus without necessarily worrying about exactly where the bus will go (of course, that does not mean that we want the bus to be driven in random Brownian path!!): the classic example is myself, in the sense that I absolutely did not foresee that I will be working so heavily in quantum information science, nor gigapixel cameras, when I accepted the offer to come to Duke. After 10 years, we indeed have a pretty clear direction that our people should be driving towards: such direction as the big data and information analytics and system integration research (current developments in “Future Technologies” initiative). These are some new directions that have become clear opportunities for our department based on the talent and expertise we have accumulated in the past decade, that was not obvious when the these faculty members were brought to Duke. We face an exciting prospect of becoming leaders in these rapidly emerging fields by driving the cutting edge of change in these research fields. These days, I get into interesting discussions with my colleagues that I have the most respect for, on whether we should hire pure talent or strategically in certain areas of research. We are in a bit of a different place compared to 10 years ago: we have some directions along which we want to “drive the bus” now, defined by some great people that have come aboard our bus in the past decade and a half. At the same time, we cannot lose the sight of bringing the “right kind of talent” on board: those that do the most rigorous research yet are capable of pursuing new directions. One cannot build a leading organization by following others. The fact that everything changes works greatly in our favor: if we have people who take some risks and strives to be at the leading edge of those changes, that is the recipe of success for building a leading organization in the future.

The next topic is termed “Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith”. This topic indeed is about how organizations face the issue of “change”, especially if it is of the nature and magnitude that completely changes the landscape the operation of their organization stands on. Many organizations face this issue as the world is changing, and again, as our colleague Richard points out, one will die if they do not face the challenge and change. The successful organizations have recognized the nature of the changes that is impacting their existence, and “developed a simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of their decisions on in confronting these changes. The changes do not go away if you turn your head the other way. When confronted properly, these changes that are potential threats to one’s existence can turn into the greatest opportunities for success. We know of many great companies of the past, for example Kodak, Zerox and Nortel Networks, who have failed to see the change in the landscape (in these cases, shift to digital imaging and internet-based communication technologies) and disappear. Big changes of similar magnitude might be coming our direction, such as on-line education, federal funding environment for research, and higher education in developing countries, that might change the way Duke operates the education and research enterprise. We have to accept these changes as the new norm, and figure out an effective way to transform ourselves to not just survive but thrive in the new environment. I do not claim to know all the answers at this time, but feel that these crises might indeed turn out to be an opportunity for us to shine and rise to be the leadership status if we can learn to seize the changes and use them to our advantage.

The final topic that is of relevance is developing “simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of the organization’s important decisions on. This insight must effectively answer the following three questions: “What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you deeply passionate about?” Among these three, the second one is highly relevant for the companies they analyzed (pursuing economic profit), but might be less relevant for an academic institution like ours. Although we cannot ignore the cost of operating an academic institution, I believe neither education nor research should be driven with economic profit as a metric. Our success should be measured by the success of people we train, whether they are undergraduate or graduate students, based on the impact they make in the society. So, we should paraphrase the questions as follows: What can we be the best in the world at, in which we are deeply passionate about, that will make our graduates the most successful once they leave Duke? If we can collectively come up with an answer to these questions and base all of our decisions based on that answer (faculty hiring, how to structure our educational programs, our research portfolio, and strategic initiatives), we should be able to make consistent decisions that will allow us to build an organization that best addresses these goals.

They describe the process of “good to great” transition as a slow yet steady momentum-building process, just like turning a large flywheel. The initial efforts to get the flywheel turning are enormous yet the results are not visible: but they are essential in building up the momentum to get things going. Such build-up process can be painful as the progress will necessarily seem very slow, but once the momentum builds up, spectacular results will follow. We have a lot of institutional experience on this front at Duke: Coach K had 10 years of build-up period before he could establish one of the greatest college basketball programs in the history of the game. While the long-term sustainability is yet to be seen, it took Coach Cutcliff over six years to achieve the success we witnessed this season. Duke’s highly visible educational programs, such as our professional schools and the signature undergraduate program, took a few decades to build up momentum and emerge into national eminence. We have definitely been building up a lot of momentum that is starting to show up in objective metrics (as Larry pointed out in the past few years). Our progress in undergraduate education is based on a long track record of our excellent teaching, as well as important initiatives such as the curriculum reform from 10 years ago that has led to our current educational structure. Based on these momentum-building measures, we have recently cracked the top 20 in undergraduate education in electrical engineering. The rate at which we have been expanding our research is equally stunning: the systematic expansion in research has led to a very high level of success in faculty productivity in various metrics, and our Ph.Ds are making much larger impact in both academic and industry environments of late. There is no question we have built up huge momentum in the past 15 years, and the trend is likely to continue. We are indeed about to make a huge leap, and it is exciting to note that it came as a result of the successful drive that has built up in the past 15 years.

On a closing note, it is important to again point out the message from Richard’s note: Change or Die. After an additional decade, we have the benefit of seeing where the 11 examples of Good-to-Great companies studied by Jim Collins’ team have landed at this point. While some of the companies continue to excel (such as Abbott Laboratories and Nucor Corporation), many companies have fallen victims to the changes that have caught them by surprise. Circuit City has gone out of business after the electronics retail industry largely moved to on-line marketplace. Fannie Mae deviated substantially from their core business values during the housing crisis, and needed huge infusion of public funds just to survive and has not recovered since. These examples show that even the most successful organizations are vulnerable and can lose their prominence in this changing world: a great opportunity for department like ours as we try to build up more momentum and rise in the ranks, but reminds us that the core values of the institution must be maintained for continued success. The essential driving force to adapt to the changes is the ability of our members to take some risk and move into new areas to lead this change: some of our most successful colleagues have done exactly that, whether it’s metamaterials, computational imaging, or machine learning. We should create a departmental environment where our young faculty members are encouraged to take some risks in their research directions. I am convinced that with adequate mentoring and guidance, the types of people we hire will be able to make progress in new areas, eventually growing into leaders of their fields. When we have more people like that, we will naturally become a great department in the leadership position.

Our students often ask us for recommendations and feedback about their career path and related topics. I find such types of conversations among the most important part of our job as educators. I would not dare to give advice in this letter, after all, as Oscar Wilde said, “I am not young enough to know everything.” Others are certainly much more qualified than me to advise, for example see President Richard H. Brodhead’s recent convocation speech for the class of 2017 ( I simply want to share some of my personal experience and thoughts and invite the interested reader to go for a coffee (or tea in my case) to continue these important and fun conversations. For me academia has been the best job possible, and I will try to convey why.

Let me start by a brief biography since my life experience has without a doubt shaped me into who I am today. I left my country, Uruguay, at the age of 17. Leaving everything behind at such early age is a challenge, one that we as educators must understand since a large population of our students left their homes at a similar age. I first arrived at a Kibbutz in Israel, where I spent 6 marvelous months. Coming from a very socialist background, and after living the majority of my life under a military dictatorship, being in a Kibbutz was not only an incredible way to adapt to a new country, but also a way to experience what I have been reading about and discussing with my youth friends. After that unique experience, I moved to Haifa, and applied to the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. Like many, I didn’t know what to study; after all, asking 17-18 years old what they want to do when they grow up is in the majority of the cases, a pointless question (I am now 47 and still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up). I knew I loved math (still do), and I thought about applying to the math department. One of my roommates explained to me that it was a mistake, since to get into the math department I had to only get about 75% in the admission exam, and that I should apply to electrical engineering where I needed to get about a perfect score (a simple consequence of supply and demand). So I did, got admitted, and from then, my academic life has been a dream! I spent 4 years working very hard, harder than ever, and got my degree. I loved it so much that I decided to continue to graduate school (or maybe I was running away from the responsibility of a real job?). I was fortunate to be accepted by David Malah to his team, and that was probably my first experience on what a great mentor is and how much he/she can influence the life of a student. Half of what I am today in academia is thanks to David, and the other half to my PhD advisor, Allen Tannenbaum. While I learned a lot about science, engineering and research from them, I learned as much about life. We are still very good friends, and they are the role models for me for the way I want to be with my own students. A good teacher, mentor, and advisor can help you to love what you do.

I loved the Technion, still do; I consider it the best university in the world (sorry Duke, but being second to the Technion is nothing to be ashamed of). I left to MIT for a year, already having a faculty position waiting for me back at the Technion: a dream job. That year was 20 years ago. How I ended up for 3 years at HP Labs in Palo Alto instead of going back to Israel is a long story for another occasion, but this was an industrial experience I recommend to everybody in our field. After that the possibility of moving to the University of Minnesota appeared, and I took it, I don’t regret it at all. I spent 15 great years in Minnesota before coming to Duke in 2012. I had and still have a blast in my job.

I was interviewed a few years ago by the main newspaper in Uruguay on the occasion of receiving the PECASE from the White House (yes, you get to visit the White House, unescorted!), and I was asked why I moved from industry back to academia. I gave many motives, but one (I will give a few more down below) was that I find universities a place where we don’t get old: we keep innovating, meeting new fabulous people, and new and naïve students with great ideas and questions. Students… they can make us so proud!

Let’s continue this line of thought. Every year we teach new students, and hopefully we positively shape their future, like my teachers and mentors helped me to shape mine. Even when we engage in innovative ways of teaching, like MOOCS, we meet new students. While I got engaged with Coursera for many motives, one being the fact that in science and in all new experiments we have to be players and not spectators, without any doubt for me the best part of my Coursera experience were the forums, and to see how naturally students help each other and how we can communicate with people otherwise we would have never had the chance to interact. Knowledge, and in particular the thirst for knowledge, transcends languages, political views, religion, and everything in between.

Academia also permits us to keep innovating scientifically. While all my research in the past 20 years is connected, what I am doing today is very different from what I did 20 years ago, and that is the case for most of my preferred colleagues. I am lucky that I am involved in very challenging research that can be life transformative as well, like our activities in deep brain stimulation (neurosurgery), HIV, and early child behavioral analysis. What can be more fun and rewarding than engaging in challenging activities that have the potential, one step at a time, of helping others?

This brings me to another key reason why I consider this the best job in the world. It allowed me to meet incredible colleagues and human beings. My closer collaborators are also among my best friends, often we first become friends and then collaborators, but sometimes the other way around also happens. I have so much fun, and have learned so much from my collaborators, that is sometimes incredible we get paid to do this (though don’t believe our salaries are so high of course). I don’t want to name all my close friends and collaborators here, we can do that when we get together for that coffee I mentioned above, but let me name one that very sadly, just passed away a few weeks ago: Vicent Caselles. The great friendship and academic collaboration we had is an example of how much I enjoy this work.

I find academia the perfect place to have a great balance between professional and family life. I feel privileged that the flexible time allowed me to pick my kids every early afternoon from school, for over 12 years, while my wife worked. It also allowed me to be at virtually every school event they have, including 9 consecutive years of camping with their school class. My family is my life, and my job allowed me to exercise this. A good friend once told me “the only free people in the world are very rich people and professors, since I can’t be in the first group, I chose to be in the second.” While we work very hard in academia, I believe that much harder than any other job we could do, we work in our own time, and that is priceless.

Yes, there are other great jobs out there, some as exciting as academia, and the world is very different today than it was when I became a professor. Yes, I was very privileged to have outstanding collaborators and students, outstanding program managers for my grants, and incredible support from the administration, and this certainly contributed to my happy life in academia. I always look for other challenges to combine with my current academic activities, other places to contribute and to become excited with. But academia is in my heart, and I hope everybody can enjoy their job as much as I enjoy mine.