If you have ever used a cell phone, undergone PRK or LASIK eye surgery or are wondering what it takes to get $500,000 for “developing effective engineering leaders,” you’re probably going to want to know who was in Washington Tuesday.
The National Academy of Engineering has given out a total of $1.5 million over three awards to pioneers in cellular telephony, individuals whose research was integral to the development of PRK and LASIK and Olin College’s first team of educators responsible for creating the institution’s engineering curriculum. The awards are among the most prestigious in the engineering community.
“The ability to recognize these leading technical accomplishments in terms of the impact they’ve had is really just an important contribution to the field of engineering,” said James Shields, president of Draper Laboratory, and added, “there is no Nobel Prize in Engineering.”
‘It’s nice, at this age, just to reminisce a little’
Engineers Martin Cooper, Joel Engel, Richard Frenkiel, Thomas Haug, and Yoshihisa Okumura were recognized for their individual contributions from the 1950s to the 1980s toward the development of the world’s cellular networks. The five engineers shared the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize, named after the founder of Draper Laboratories.
“It’s nice, at this age, just to reminisce a little, to have it turn out that what you did mattered,” said Frenkiel when asked during an interview Tuesday to describe how he felt about the recognition. The five men sat quietly in a semi-circle in the Board Room at the National Academy of Sciences historic building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Asked what innovation they most wished to see emerge next, Cooper said it would be centered around social media.
“The biggest innovation of all is social networking, and cellular technology is the facilitator for social networking,” he said, “People are mobile; social networking is people, and the only way people connect with each other is wirelessly. So, I think that’s our future.”
Engel, who, along with Frenkiel, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1994, said his focus was on health care.
“I think what I would like to see most is not some technological advance,” he said, “but the application of technology to health care. We have this tremendous information technology capability and it’s being used in offices, and it’s being used in manufacturing, but it still hasn’t had the impact on health care that I think is very important.”
The group, initially quiet, became animated when asked about the current nature of innovation and whether it was too incremental.
“I think what we’re seeing is a convergence, really, of the big networks, the Internet and the cellular — completely independent ideas, really — but you can see the convergence. And I think what I would like to see, if I were to start again, is I would join that ... to make a flexible system that can be used for almost anything,” said Haug, a native of Norway. “I think that’s what’s going on. In the next five years, I’m not in doubt at all that this development is going to go on.”
Engel, however, said he regretted the loss of the larger institutions, such as Bell Labs and RCA, that had allowed for the sweeping innovations of the past.
“I really think that we’ve lost something, and I think we have to get it back.”
But Frenkiel disagreed. “I look at what’s happening today ... it may be happening an increment at a time, but the sum total of what’s happened is, I think, beautiful,” he said, “It would be sad if you needed these large institutions. Because we don’t have them anymore. So, I have to hope that today’s innovation is every bit as effective in its own way.”
And there was yet another disagreement from Cooper, who said, “I have to disagree with these guys as a matter of principle, although I agree with the fundamentals.”
For Cooper, it was just the beginning of a new wave of innovation.
“Only now are we starting to get the real applications of things that are going to change the world. And just the talking and the games we’re playing and the social networking — these are only the very earliest stages. What happens from this point on is just going to be enormous.”
The current innovation around their initial discoveries was so profound, at least for Frenkiel, as to be emotionally impactful. The use of social media via mobile devices in the Middle East during what has been widely termed the “Arab Spring” and the use of cellular technology by Kenyan fishermen communicating with ports to find which port had the best prices for their fish, said Frenkiel, was “moving.”
Asked if he ever envisioned such technologies when doing his original research, Frenkiel said, “No! I thought about phones in cars.”
‘We have an ordinary telephone’
Asked whether each of them had a cell phone, the engineers, who were being celebrated for their work in cellular telephony, didn’t have five phones among them. Frenkiel said he bought his cell phone four years ago without specifying the make and said he rarely uses it. In fact, he said he didn’t have it on his person at the time of the interview. Cooper, who worked for Motorola’s R&D division for 29 years, said he uses a Motorola Droid Razr M and buys a new phone about every three months.
Okomura, however, said, via a translator, that he doesn’t use a cellphone at all. Engel, meanwhile, has an iPhone because his wife had seen their grandchildren using one.
“But I don’t use it very much,” he said, “it sits in my car. I use it as a cellphone when I’m away from home.”
Haug said he has a Motorola and his wife has a Siemens phone. “But we don’t use them very much, because we have an ordinary telephone.”
Frenkiel offered his rationale for why pioneers recognized for their work in cellular technology wouldn’t be latched to new, shiny smartphones: “Engineers can separate the two issues of something that’s fun to work on from something you need.”
‘I don’t like turkey’
Then there are Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James J. Wynne, and Samuel E. Blum, who died in January. All are being recognized for their work in developing what have come to be known as PRK and LASIK corrective eye surgery. This is not the first award for the three — all of whom were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. All three will share the $500,000 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize.
“The original work that we are involved in was done in 1981 — eighty-one,” emphasized Srinivasan, “so, 30 years ago.”
When asked about his glasses, Srinivasan said they are cosmetic, “Because I’ve been wearing glasses since age ten, and people complain if I don’t wear them.”
Asked about his use of leftover Thanksgiving turkey as his first laser test subject back in November 1981, Srinivasan said, “That’s only because I wanted real animal tissue, and I don’t like turkey.”
Srinivasan, when asked about what was next in laser technology, said, “It’s not having a new sexy wavelength, you have to have a distinct advantage.”
Wynne, who is still with IBM, where he has worked for over 40 years, said he is currently working on a “smart scalpel” — his “passion at the moment.” The project involves the use of the excimer laser, the type of laser used in LASIK and PRK, only on the skin for therapeutic purposes, such as to remove burn legions. He is currently looking for the “right external institution” to carry out further, live-animal tests. “We know it works, we don’t know if it will become efficient, cost-effective — only experiments will tell.”
‘Engineering gets a bad rap’
The Bernard M. Gordon Prize, also for $500,000, was awarded to Richard Miller, David Kerns, and Sherra Kerns — the team responsible for creating the engineering curriculum at Olin College, which accepted its first class in 2002. Half of the prize will go to Olin in order to, according to the NAE, “support the continued development, refinement, and dissemination of the innovation.”
Miller, who was hired as the college’s first employee in 1999, currently serves as its president. He later recruited David and Sherra Kerns, known for the last 30 years by their students and others alternatively as “Doc” and “ODK,” or “Other Doctor Kerns.” It was, they said, the only way their students at Vanderbilt, where they both taught previously, could differentiate between the two professors.
The husband-and-wife team was brought on board to develop Olin’s program and, as the school’s Web site outlines, “redefine engineering as a profession of innovation.” David Kerns is currently a faculty member and served as provost and chief academic officer from 1999 to 2007. Meanwhile, Sherra Kerns served as vice president for innovation and research during the same period and is also now a faculty member.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” said Miller of how it felt to win the award.
“It feels fabulous,” said Sherra Kerns.
“It’s a wonderful honor,” said David.
When asked what the key is to keeping children interested in engineering, Sherra Kerns said, “I think my first answer is: to let them know that you love them and that you are interested in their learning, and in so doing, to give them responsibility for their own learning, and to let them know that you’re backing them up.”
“This is a fixable problem," said Miller, “and we believe that the clue to getting the answer resides in what we call engagement,” or getting students more involved in choosing their own paths to learning, such as letting them choose their own problems to solve in math class, for example.
‘Fifty percent of the intellect on the planet’
Olin has, according to the Kerns, achieved very close to gender parity — a goal established early.
“I was always the only female — just about the only female ... over and over and over again,” said Sherra Kerns. “I actually needed to learn to operate in an all-male environment.”
But starting a program from scratch, as she was called on to do at Olin, she realized there was an opportunity to do better, and set a permanent goal for parity.
“Fifty percent of the intellect on the planet is there. If engineering cannot attract half the intellect on the planet, then we have a problem. We’re losing,” she said.
Asked what policymakers are missing in their pursuit of an answer to President Obama’s and others’calls to grow the number of students studying STEM subjects, David Kerns said,“One of the things I hear the political community speak of is we need to do more about math and science education. They never mention engineering. ... The words ‘science’ and ‘math’ come out more than the words ‘science, math and engineering.’”
“By the time we see the students, a lot of them are still undecided,”he said, “because they still don’t know what an engineer is.” To fix this, he recommends incorporating engineering into the high school curriculums.
“It’s all around us but we never name it,” said Sherra Kerns, “We don’t point it out. We don’t say, that is engineering. That’s what engineering is.”
The awards were presented at a gala Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
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