Featured Engineer

Interview with Dr. Frank Barnes

Dr. Frank Barnes

Interview with Dr. Frank Barnes - Distinguished Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Colorado

Please give us a little background about yourself.

My father was a Civil Engineer and as a result of World War 2 we moved all over the US. I was in 13 schools in 9 states before I finished high school in Littleton Colorado. I have always been interested in learning new things in many areas including history, biographies, science, and how things work.

How did you become interested in Electrical Engineering?

In some sense I have been interested in engineering for as long as I can remember. When I started as an undergraduate I took a major in electrical engineering and physics as I was interested in knowing the science behind the material I was working on as well as how to make things. Also I used to audit a course, each semester, in humanities—just for fun—and that background has helped in the management aspects of engineering projects.

Can you tell us what it is like to be a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Colorado?

It is a very nice honor. It is always nice to be recognized by those you work with.

You have many patents. Which one is the most challenging?

This is a hard question to answer. Perhaps the most difficult were the patents “A Voltage-Tunable Phased Array Antenna Apparatus Including Ferroelectric Material,” U.S. Patent #5,589, and U. S. Patent #5,472,935 issued Dec. 5, 1995 Tunable Microwave Devices Incorporating High Temperature Superconducting and Ferroelectric Films” as they took a lot of work both by me and by the students to make these devices work.

You received many awards and recognitions. What were your secrets that lead you in achieving those awards and recognitions?

Many things go into a rewarding career: First is treating people the way you would like to be treated no matter where they are in the organization. Second, being willing to listen and to be genuinely interested in what people have to say. Third, if you can make those who report to you, successful, as well as your boss, they usually take care of you and make you successful. Fourth, look to the future on where you field is going and separate out the important problems from the details. If you can define the important aspects of a problem, concisely, it often leads you to what needs to be done and tells you whether it is a solvable problem or not. Fifth, figure out how to do a little more work and put in a few more hours than most of those around you without jeopardizing your home life and make the time you spend working, count.

What books do you like to read aside from engineering books?

I like to read about public affairs and what is going on in the world. Having lived in Bagdad in 1957 and 1958 and having traveled a lot, I am always interested what is happening in other parts of the world. I have friends and former students in so many places that I almost always know of someone who is affected by current events and it fun to learn something about the background of the problems.

Do you have any hobbies outside of work?

I like to hike, ski and read.

What have been some of your strengths that have helped you get to where you are today?

Being stubborn and willing to follow through even when others tell you are going to fail or you are not good enough to go on. To do something new you have to be willing to work on projects and try things that most people do not think are worth doing. You are going to fail more than once. I sometimes say I have lost more battles than most people have been in. However, I have won more than my share and I have made it possible for students and colleagues to succeed. Helping others to succeed in ways that they could not have done on their own is one of the most satisfying rewards a professor can have. Also, I seem to have been able to identify some important problem before others have and helped solve one or two of them.

As a professor, what words of encouragement would you give to your students?

Solving tough problems can be fun and there is a lot of satisfaction to be had when you succeed. Think about what you want to do after graduation and ask yourself what is it going to take to get there. Also, give yourself the freedom to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Do not be afraid to take on a tough course and to ask for help when you need it. Honesty counts! If you are wrong, admit it and go on. Your competition is not just local—it is worldwide. There are lots of smart people out there. If you read one technical paper a week after you graduate that you do not have to, you will be the best read person in your organization and the one people come to for information.

Is there anything you’d like to say to young people to encourage them to pursue Engineering?

I believe engineering is the best liberal education for today’s world. It gives you the foundation and an approach to solving a very large number of important problems—many of which are not normally considered to be engineering problems. We are the ones that change what is possible. There are lots of examples in business and even in politics. Just think of what the cell phone, computers and the communications systems that tie them together have done to change the world we live in. To lead technical changes you need not just to know about the devices and systems you are working with, but you also need to understand them well enough to use them to solve new problems. Students also need to take advantage of the liberal arts classes as well as the technical courses. The technical courses are important in getting their first job and beyond, but as they get promoted, they will need the liberal arts courses like history, English etc. to manage the people problems.

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