Opening Remarks at the Q&A session on June 9, 2005
Ten years ago, Professor Paulraj along with Vwani Roychowdhury, Chuck Schaper and a host of students, took the lead in organizing, with remarkable help from Christine Lincke, a grand celebration for me lasting almost a week. I promised at the time that that would be it, but here we are again!
Not on that scale of course-that would be hard to surpass. Also this one has been organized , for personal reasons, at relatively short notice. Nevertheless with leadership by Professors El Gamal, Weissman and Paulraj, and the remarkable efforts of Denise Murphy, here we are again!
And several of you who were here 10 years ago have been kind enough to come again.
But this is it, you can relax: No more big birthday conferences!
Instead there will be, every year, something less transient and much more memorable: this wonderful endowment whose major goal is to help to inspire and enhance the work and lives of present future generations of students. There was a time when far-sighted government and industry leaders did provide relatively generous support not only for basic curiosity-driven research, but also for research-enhancing activities such as informal conferences and workshops, and funds for postdoctoral scholars and a generous stream of distinguished visitors spending anywhere from a few days to a few weeks at places such as RLE and LIDS at MIT and ISL at Stanford. Bob Gallager and I were certainly among the beneficiaries of that system. But such funds are sadly extremely hard to come by these days. And I am happy to say that this endowment is starting out well enough that at least some of these activities can begin to increase again and that in time the endowment will grow to enable even more significant efforts. But that is in the future.
In the present, for me on this, as someone wrote to me, the 20th anniversary of my 50th birthday, it is indeed a very special honor, and it gives me very great pleasure that it is my former students who have taken such a magnificent initiative .I always knew that I had the esteem and the affection of my many students, but this is really showing that esteem in a very concrete and meaningful way. The memory of this gesture will remain with me for ever. Thank you indeed.
And here a special thank you to Professor Vwani Roychowdhury, the prime mover behind this initiative. It took a lot of work, as any of you who have done fundraising will fully appreciate, to get this project started so well.
He and his wife, Mary, are also the creative spirits behind the beautiful brochure that you have with you today. For my 60th birthday, Vwani who was then at Purdue had commissioned an artist, Anne Mackenzie Nickolson in Indianapolis, to create a textile quilt , highlighting significant equations and diagrams from my papers. The original hangs in my study, but it was used in the brochure for the conference in 1995 and for the book published on that occasion. This time they commissioned Gretel Ann Stephens of Los Angeles to compose the painting displayed here and shown on this beautiful brochure, for which they also collaborated on the text and arranged for a graphic designer from Pasadena College of Art.
My colleagues at ISL, led by Abbas El Gamal , aided by A Paulraj and Tsachy Weissman, put together this nice program and are out in force today. And another very special thank you to our laboratory administrator, Denise Murphy, for her really heroic efforts and her attention to the many hidden details that are essential to the success of such an event. She has not had much rest for quite a while. Thank you indeed, Denise.
I said that I always knew that I had the esteem and the affection of my many students, but honesty demands that I should add: perhaps not all of them and certainly not all the time. I remember my first student, Piet Schalkwijk from Holland, complain often that I made him rewrite his thesis 6 times! That’s an exaggeration. After all he graduated in two years after his Master’s degree. Almost all my students graduated within 3-4 years from their Master’s degrees. (Another student reminded me some time ago, and this I don’t remember at all, that in my early years, I used to hold extra lectures on Saturdays!
However in a related vein, I remember about 20 years ago, a Bell Labs recruiter, Scott Knauer,telling me that his boss had challenged his recommendation that 3 of my students to be hired at the same time: Weren’t there other fish in the sea, he demanded to know? Scott’s explanation was that each of my students had to do the equivalent of 3 theses before I let them graduate! So how could they miss!
That too is an exaggeration, but there were many student collaborations and many joint papers, all of which enriched their own thesis experience.
Two of the three students who went to Bell Labs in 1985 are here today, the third is on sabbatical in Singapore and could not come. The two here today are also Founding Donors: Sailesh Rao and Juan Jover. I guess they left Bell Labs in time!
I mentioned earlier the aims of the endowment: to support a variety of research-enhancing activities. First at MIT, and then here, I have benefited greatly from such activities and believe strongly in them.. So at Stanford I tried to have a generous flow of visitors, staying from a week to a month to a year, and also mini- workshops, bringing people here who were leaders in fields that we were attempting to enter, or just very smart people who could lead us into new directions.
I also strongly believed in having post-docs, of whom I have had nearly 40, sometimes 2 or 3 at the same time, esp. when we were entering new areas. One of those post-docs is here today from Sweden, Lennart Ljung, the world leader in System Identification ,who was just inducted last October as a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Engineering. Support for postdoctoral scholars is very scarce these days- a big loss for many reasons.
On the theme of visitors, here is a quotation from the thesis of another student who is here today from France, Dirk Slock, who thanked me” for the enthusiasm with which he has taught interesting courses and organized inspiring seminars to such an extent that this has determined the better part of my current research capabilities and interests”. Dirk went on also to thank me for my” judgment in striking an apparently right balance between prodding for answers to his incisive questions and patience with exploring and developing minds”.
Another student, Joohwan Chun who is here today from Korea, wrote along the same lines: “this dissertation has evolved from answering and re-answering his short but incisive questions.’ Incidentally, to give you some flavor of the research atmosphere at ISL, later in his acknowledgments Chun wrote “Frequent visits of Dirk Slock to my office at night helped me keep awake”
Here is another take on the topic of questions. Augusto Vieira, now in Brazil, wrote that during his stay at Stanford he experienced the hell described by the poet R Lowell:
If I had a dream of hell
it would be packing up a house
with demons eternally asking
thought provoking questions.
Vieira does add that he was fortunate and grateful to have had the experience. (I should mention that the students write their acknowledgments only after their theses are signed!)
As you can glimpse from these quotations I have had the great good fortune to have had a spectacular array of excellent students. Here is how one of them, Lee Swindlehurst, responded when I wrote to congratulate him on election to IEEE Fellow last year:
Thanks, Prof. Kailath. It is a nice honor, but I think it is required of former PhD students of yours, isn't it? I would guess a pretty high percentage of your students have gone on to become IEEE fellows; I would have hated being one of the few that didn't!
I am happy that working together we created what Vwani described in the brochure as a rigorous intellectual climate, where such ambitions were the norm. I haven’t kept track recently, but I think about 50% of my students and post-docs are IEEE Fellows, and three of them are members of the US National Academy of Engineering. Besides Lennart, we have John Cioffi and Jim Omura ( both founding donors as well.) And I am confident there will be more in the years to come. Not that IEEE Fellowship is the whole measure of accomplishment. Just to mention one other, as you have just heard, several of them went on to successful industrial and entrepreneurial careers; about 20 companies have been founded or co-founded by them).
To leave time for your questions, let me conclude these remarks about my wonderful students, by first noting the names of the other student donors not mentioned above:
Debu Pal, George Verghese, A Paulraj, Boaz Porat, Yao-Ting Wang (and early
Numerical Technologies employees Fang-Cheng Chang and Atul Sharan , and Numerical Board member and long-time colleague, Abbas El Gamal).
And finally, a quotation from a story I read recently about Dr Patricia Donahoe, the first female Professor of Surgery at Harvard, and now a leading cancer researcher and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Obviously, a very accomplished person. Here is part of what she said there: “Substantive accomplishments often come from the people you influence. And if you influence them in the right way, you can accomplish far more than if you did it yourself. ”
I could not agree more. So once again to all my students, those mentioned already and the many others unmentioned here (both students and other good friends):
Thank you for a wonderful time together.