Featured Engineer

Interview with Rui Xu

Rui Xu

Interview with Rui ("Ray") Xu - Electrical Engineering Student at University of Texas, Austin

Can you give us a little background about yourself?

I’m currently a second-year EE undergraduate major at UT Austin. I was raised in Plano, Texas, and I graduated from Plano Senior High School in 2013. I knew I wanted to become an electrical engineer when my father (a software engineer) showed me a working battery and light bulb circuit when I was 4 years old. From that point on, my fascination in electronics has manifested on its own.

Throughout elementary school, I remember I would draw schematics read technical books and internet articles on electronics on my free time. By 6th grade (middle school), I built my first project on my own incorporating both basic analog and embedded electronics – a sonar range finder – from scratch using my own design. During my later middle school years, I attempted to build a laser range finder. Unlike my sonar range finder, I eventually realized how difficult it was to literally measure the speed of light using the knowledge I had at that time and as a result, progress on the project slowed to a halt. However, in retrospect, the experience and knowledge I gained in analog electronics formed most of my foundational knowledge.

My passion and interest for electrical engineering started to increase exponentially after my first year in high school I started to reach out to other (professional) engineers for help or feedback on my projects. In my first year of high school, I partnered with a local engineer at VEX Robotics and RobotC and constructed a public demo robot for the 2010 VEX World Championships. That opportunity also led me to my first full-length publication in the 2011 Jan/Feb edition of ROBOT Magazine.

In sophomore year of high school, I decided to challenge myself and explore more in the RF direction. By the end of the year, I obtained an amateur radio license (callsign KF5LJO) and built a working 10GHz portable Doppler radar at home. I was then invited as a guest speaker at Texas Instruments’ Kilby Labs. Through that opportunity I was introduced to Professor Kenneth Kyongyop O, the director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE) at UT Dallas (UTD). I joined Dr. O’s CMOS terahertz group, working full time during school breaks and part time during school weeks starting the summer after high school sophomore year. For the three-ish years in Dr. O’s group and before leaving Dallas for UT Austin, I was assigned a project that I worked on with the guidance of PhD students. I taught myself CMOS circuit design and layout, successfully designed my first entire analog CMOS integrated circuit (before graduating from high school!) for fabrication, and completed preliminary testing on my chip.

How did you become interested in Electrical Engineering?

I always had an interest in electronics. Honestly I don’t have a special/particular reason why I like it – It’s just something that has endlessly fascinated me and something that my mind just “clicks” with. Simply put, the primary way in which I view electronics is not like a job or an area of study (although, it can be if I wanted it to), but rather I feel like it is something on the same level as my personal life. I don’t think I would be the same fundamental person today if I had not been exposed to electronics a long time ago. When I work on something or think about it on my own accord, it usually de-stresses my mind regardless of any challenges.

These days, I have realized it as my passion and became partial towards analog electronics over the years. I see analog electronics as a form of art; the process of designing a piece of analog circuitry is difficult, time consuming, and lacks a clear and logical method, but yet the solution is always beautiful and simple in retrospect. Creativity and intuition must be involved; a novel analog circuit cannot be born straight out of mathematical equations or a text book. Although sophisticated circuit simulators have been developed, it is by no means an equal replacement of the unique thought process that goes into a design. Finally, analog designers must understand how electronics interact with the real world and in certain environments – this field is called analog electronics because everything in our world that we live in and perceive is analog.

What is it like to be an Electrical Engineering student at University of Texas? Could you describe a typical school day?

Busy. I’m usually on campus for 8 hours on average, up to 16 hours when I’m busiest. This is my busiest semester so far, and next semester is supposed to be even busier. Most weekdays are brutal and some days are just not good, but regardless I still enjoy it.

Can you tell us about your previous work as a Product Engineer at Texas Instruments?

I was fortunate to have received an internship during the summer after my first year at UT Austin, given that it is hard for freshmen to receive internships. I was placed in the High Performance Analog unit and the high-reliability group. Most of my time was spent characterizing/verifying the TPS7A4501-SP device and writing the datasheet. Although it was my first position in a professional setting (for 3 months), it was fun and I did learn a lot about the professional engineering setting for future internships/jobs.

One of your research interests is the Texas Satellite Laboratory (TSL). Can you please tell us more about it?

I worked in Dr. Glenn Lightsey’s satellite research group during my freshmen year at UT Austin. Although his group is classified under the Aerospace Engineering department, I was very attracted towards his group because of their unique application of EE – they build cube (think: fits in the palm of your hand) satellites for scientific missions and actually launch them into space! Because I was new, I mainly worked on circuit design and PCB layout during my two semesters in his group. During my time there, I wanted to start a long-term satellite project involving terahertz, software-defined radios, and/or laser communications, however I left his group prematurely after freshmen year due to other circumstances and unforeseen logistics. Re-joining his group as a graduate student is a possibility…

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

Humbleness and not being afraid of failure are the two most important character traits towards any awards/recognitions/success. For me, to remain humble means to unconditionally believe in the assumption that there will always be someone who is superior in any aspect. But at the same time, my passion in this field allows me to continually strive for a higher understanding despite that there will still always be someone else on top. Being able to objectively accept (and ask) for criticism is also important – like the role of negative feedback in (most) op amp circuits. In terms of failing, I do not see failure as a negative thing if I knew I had put forth my best effort. In that case, I succeeded in gaining invaluable amounts of experience in the process of failing.

What are you currently working on?

As of the beginning of my sophomore year, I am involved in a start-up/independent research group with 6 other students. Our main goal is to develop a non-invasive glucose meter for diabetics that can be worn on the finger (as a ring) or on the wrist. This project is currently part of the Longhorn Startup Lab and our team is composed of UT undergraduate students with majors in EE, computer science, business, neuroscience, and chemistry fields. Our project is based on the concept of non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy and the solution is basically two-fold: 1) fitting a spectrometer into a microchip, and 2) developing an algorithm for data processing and to “learn” the specific individual’s body to further reduce reading errors. Personally, I am mostly responsible of the hardware such as the analog front-end, IC circuit design, and eventually the development of a monolithic tunable infrared laser. Due to the heavy research nature of our project, we currently work under the guidance of several professors here at UT as well as local nutritionist, healthcare professionals, and diabetics.

The project I began while in high school in Dr. O’s group is on-going despite I have left Dallas; I still have testing to carry out on the IC that I designed. As a result, I volunteer part of my school breaks and select weekends from UT Austin to finish up testing the chip that I designed at UT Dallas. For the three-ish years that I was active in Dr. O’s group, I spent considerably more time on this project than everything else combined, including high school and homework. By senior year of high school, I only spent 5 hours in high school per day while the rest of the day and most of my weekend was spent at UTD. Now, since I’m at UT Austin, it’s more of a leisurely project that I do whenever I find convenient to travel back.

At home, I have developed an obsession with military-grade electronics for the sake of higher reliability and quality. Using these parts, I am building what I call a “spread-spectrum synchronized switch-mode power supply”. The general idea is to have good efficiency and power factor while maintaining low-noise performance without using brute-force filtering. To do this is essentially noise-shaping: instead of having the switcher oscillator set at one frequency, it will be designed to switch at pseudo-random frequencies. In the big picture, this will be my main power supply that will power everything on my home lab bench and will have features optimized towards long-term reliability and flexibility/scalability. I’m practically building my own test equipment from the bottom-up because this is how much pride I have in electronics.

Another project in the queue is a mobile multi-purpose radio also using military-grade parts, strictly for my own personal use. It will cover amateur, aircraft, emergency, and other airbands with various modes for different purposes and a GPS receiver. In addition to being capable of using it in cases of emergencies on the ground, it will also be capable of instrument aeronautical navigation in case an emergency happens while I’m flying an airplane.

My personal web page, where I try to keep it up-to-date with projects: http://www.utdallas.edu/~rxx110130

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

For general analog work, it’s the oscilloscope. Although its functionality and design is simple compared to other instruments, it gives a good “big picture” look and it is the most useful piece of equipment that is portable by hand. I also find it fascinating how much innovation can be packed into a small device, such as with mixed-signal and mixed-domain oscilloscopes. I currently own a Tektronix TDS2014 for general purpose work and a cheap Hitachi V212 for power/high-voltage work.

I’ve also used network analyzers and spectrum analyzers for low-noise/low-signal/RF analog circuits, which I have also found fascinating.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

Electromagnetic solvers are perhaps the most insightful and interesting tools I’ve used in EE. Unlike circuit simulators, EM solvers are highly versatile because they derive the results directly from the foundations of physics. It’s a tool that, when in use, gives me the most appreciation for modern day computing.

Do you have any hobbies outside of school?

My most involved hobby right now is flying. I began private pilot lessons during my last summer of high school (before heading to UT Austin). I spent the past two summers working in Dr. O’s group at UTD and I wanted to pursue something different as a way to mark the end of high school. As a result, most of my summertime and the money earned at UTD went towards my license. By February 2014, delayed by the following school semester and other circumstances, I finally earned my private pilot license. I trained in the Cessna 152, but I am also familiar with the Cessna 172(R, SP), Diamond DA40, and the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit suite. I also have one hour logged in a Cirrus SR20 (thanks to my awesome flight instructor!). My home airport is McKinney National Airport (KTKI) and it has logged over 100 hours so far. I plan on pursuing an instrument rating hopefully towards the end of my undergraduate years.

Few years from now, what direction do you see yourself?

I want to pursue a PhD degree in EE and be involved in research. Additionally, I am hoping to join the U.S. Airforce (Reserves?) prior entering graduate school to become a part-time non-combat pilot within the military. That might or might not be feasible.

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

If you’re a high school student and think you have a true genuine interest in something, then get your foot in the door early. For example, look up professors at a local university, read their bio and research areas, send them an email, and talk with them. Try to participate in something that is entirely outside of school and school extracurricular, such as joining a professor’s research group. The farther in relation to school the better. From my experience, a high school student reaching out to a university professor will probably leave a better and stronger impression than an equivalent undergraduate student. I hypothesize that not a lot of high school students reach out to professors compared to undergraduates; therefore the high school student already sets himself apart from almost everyone else in the professor’s scope. Not only will you gain research experience, but it will also give you an insight into graduate school and, depending on the group, it might give you a whole new set of life-long friends.

For me, it was after about one year in Dr. O’s group that I started to realize how “sheltered” high school really is from the real world. In high school, I felt like life was over-simplified down to just a one-way road and the only figure-of-merit was GPA; it lacked fundamental motivation for me. By reaching out on my own and paving my own path, I gained a new perspective on my world as well as professional opportunities through networking. And finally I realized: Don’t make education a primary goal by itself, but rather use education to help cultivate something within you that appeals to your interests.

For parents, don’t be afraid to spend money on your child, especially if he/she is young. I feel that this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give to a broad audience because the time before college is the prime time to discover and cultivate any passions or hobbies due to the relatively low level of responsibility and work compared to college life. My parents’ philosophy is “we will buy you anything if you can learn from it.” For example, I received my first real oscilloscope (TDS2014) in middle school, as well as countless many other things that played an essential role in my own learning. Although my knowledge was rudimentary back then compared to now, the oscilloscope served as a strong catalyst to my learning experience. The things I learned as a result of using my oscilloscope formed most of my fundamental knowledge in analog electronics and I would have not gotten into Dr. O’s group if I had not learned those things.

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