Featured Engineer

Interview with Dr. Raymond C. Rumpf

Dr. Raymond C. Rumpf

Dr. Raymond C. Rumpf - Asso Prof of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas of El Paso

Can you give us a little background about yourself?

I grew up in a very rural town in Pennsylvania called Ferndale. In 1990, I moved to Florida to learn Electrical Engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology. I joined Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity and served as its president during my senior year. While in school, I got a co-op position with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center doing digital circuit design. This was an incredible experience for me and a turning point for me to see the practical side of the things I was learning in school. When I graduated with my BS in EE in 1995, I decided I wanted to do more research so I went on to earn my MS in EE at the same school. My studies focused on fiber optics and fiber optic sensors. My graduation was delayed a bit after I was involved in a skydiving accident, but I finished in December 1997. At this point, I got a full-time job with Harris Corporation in Melbourne, Florida. I spent my first year repairing man-portable satellite communications systems. While I learned a lot, I wanted more challenge so I started working with the Microsystems Technology Group. The mission for this group was to radically miniaturize communications systems. This was another turning point in my career as it gave me exposure to many things like advanced packaging, materials, thermal management, power generation, antennas, radio frequency circuits, and much more. I not only got to learn about all of these areas, I observed how the group was built, how research projects were obtained, and how research was executed from an industry perspective. While working for Harris, I continued to take more college classes in Electrical Engineering at the University of Central Florida. I enrolled in the PhD program in EE and took classes in the areas of signal processing, communications, and electromagnetics. I finished my coursework, passed my qualifying exam, and started to do research in the area of fractional linear systems. Pretty soon I had an opportunity to join CREOL, the College of Optics, at the University of Central Florida, so I did that without finishing my PhD in EE. During my time at Harris, I saw photonics as a highly enabling technology for microsystems, but I did not have a strong background in nanophotonic technologies or nanofabrication. This guided my decision to transfer over to CREOL. I eventually earned my PhD in Optics in 2006 where I studied nanophotonics in Microphotonics Lab (now at Clemson University). At this point, I resigned my position with Harris Corporation to become the Chief Technology Officer for Prime Photonics in Blacksburg, Virginia. During the next five years, I helped the company broaden its technology from solely fiber optic sensors to an array of technologies for extreme applications. In 2006, I had the opportunity to join the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). As Prime Photonics was transitioning to a product development stage, moving to UTEP made sense to me because I wanted to do crazier and more ambitious research than was practical in a small business. I became an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Fall 2010. I formed the EM Lab within the W. M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation with a mission to evolve 3D printing for electromagnetics and to develop revolutionary technologies that 3D printing enables. Our research is extremely ambitious and very high risk, but we think the payoffs will be huge if we are successful.

Why did you choose Electrical Engineering and when did you start?

When I was in high school, there were many career paths I was considering including psychology, chemistry, computer programming, and electrical engineering. I found myself just more interested in computers and electronics than anything else. I started my education in Electrical Engineering in 1990 when I went to school at the Florida Institute of Technology. I am still learning Electrical Engineering!

What is it like to be an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Texas at El Paso? Could you describe a typical work day?

Being an Associate Professor at UTEP is an incredible experience. By far, the best part of the job for me is helping students learn and to become excited by the technology. Compared to a job in industry, I am more free to explore crazy concepts, which was a huge part of my motivation to become a professor. My typical day is spent mostly writing. It seems like I am always writing a report for a project, a journal article, a proposal, a letter of recommendation for a student, course notes, white papers, or a variety of other things. This is intermixed with students coming to my office throughout the day with questions or problems. While this is quite distracting from my other work, it is actually my favorite part of the day and I maintain an “open door” policy where any student can stop by my office at any time. I keep a large jar of candy on my desk with a label that says “Stump Dr. Rumpf.” I do this to encourage fun and challenging questions and I have not been disappointed. Lecturing is also very enjoyable and I use my experience in industry to provide practical examples to the students and to give them career advice. Preparing for lecture is a lot more work than I ever thought it would be. I also work very hard to build the EM Lab and to help make it world famous through its research accomplishments. This involves writing proposals, helping students with their research, speaking to potential customers, working with very tight budgets, reaching out to collaborators, showcasing our accomplishments to the world, and coordinating all of this toward a common goal. In many ways, I think my top responsibility as a researcher is simply to ensure that my students have all of the tools and resources they need to do their research.

One of your research interests is about 3D printing. Can you give us a little background about it?

3D printing is getting a lot of press right now, and for good reasons. It allows anyone to make anything very rapidly and at much lower cost than if traditional manufacturing techniques were used. It lets people use their imagination to degrees never before possible. There are many different kinds of 3D printers that can manufacture parts from a variety of different materials like plastic or metal. I would like to see more 3D printers that can do different materials at the same time, and not just different colors of the same material. I would like to mix metals and plastics to make circuits, motors, sensors, and other things. I think some day we will buy less things at a store. Instead, we will download an app for our 3D printer at home and it will manufacture the thing we wanted.

What is your favorite patent?

I have two favorite patents. First, many years ago we patented an idea to integrate a radically miniaturized radio directly into an optical fiber. The radio would use the light in the fiber to power itself and it would provide a seamless interface between the optical and wireless domains. While I was at Prime Photonics, we collaborated with Virginia Tech and actually built one of the radios. It was smaller than a spec of pepper and contained only 42 transistors. Right now, we are working on a very exciting patent at UTEP. We invented a way to very effectively decouple electrical components when they are in very close proximity. We are beginning to apply this technology to many things including antennas in mobile phones. We think it will be quite revolutionary and a very big deal for UTEP and the EM Lab.

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

I do not think I have any secrets, but I can say that I do not really concentrate on earning awards. I usually just do not think about applying for them. Filling out applications always seemed like a waste of time to me because it did not advance my research. Further, there are hundreds or thousands of different metrics for measuring a scientist’s success. I could drive myself crazy thinking about all of them. I suggest only considering those metrics that would seriously change what you do and how you do it. The other metrics are meaningless and will only give you stress by focusing on them.

What are you currently working on?

I truly believe that some of the best electromagnetic research in the world is happening in our lab right now at UTEP. We are only four years old and we have already delivered an array of amazing breakthroughs and each has a very bright future. We developed and demonstrated the world’s highest power frequency selective surfaces, operating in excess of 2.0 GW. These same devices also broke records for bandwidth and field-of-view. We would like to apply this technology at optical frequencies. In other work, we developed an entirely new electromagnetic concept and used it to demonstrate the world’s tightest bend of an optical beam. This will let us replace metal conductors with optical waveguides for interconnects in high speed digital systems. In yet another project, we developed a new technology using metamaterials to dramatically improve electromagnetic compatibility between electrical components placed in close proximity. We demonstrated it by decoupling two closely spaced antennas in a mockup mobile phone. We are looking at commercializing this technology to insert it into products like mobile devices. While we are working on many other little things that may prove to be just as revolutionary in a few years, we are getting some new 3D printers that will give us new capabilities to print very complex systems containing multiple materials, like metals and dielectrics, with very fine resolution. Using this equipment, we are going to reinvent circuits for three dimensions. We have a lot of ideas.

How did you get your job? What jobs and experiences have led you to your present position?

I have always wanted to teach, and I was connected to the opportunity at UTEP through my professional network. I was fortunate enough to have the set of skills that UTEP was looking for at the time. I would say almost all of my jobs and experiences led me to my current position. I have a very broad background and I use all of it in my job. We are going to start 3D printing high frequency circuits. To do this, I need a background in electromagnetics, signals, communications, manufacturing, advanced packaging, thermal management, and probably more. I think I have a unique set of skills that will help me lead a team to develop this technology.

What do you usually do during your free time?

In the past I used to be an avid skydiver, scuba diver, and fisherman. I even earned five world records in skydiving while I was in college. Today I enjoy hiking, taking karate classes with my little girl, and doing things with my family.

In a few years from now, what direction do you see yourself?

I see myself doing more of the same. I hope that we will have successfully commercialized some of our technology. I would like to see more spin-off companies form out of the EM Lab, grow, and become very successful. We need more high-tech in El Paso. I envision reinventing high frequency circuits for 3D printing and incorporating some of the technologies we have been developing so far. We may also be more active in the area of nanophotonics and optical interconnects. I hope that our family of collaborators grows and that we take on larger and more complex projects.

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

When I was in college, I really felt like everybody around me was much smarter than I was. This included professors as well as my fellow students. This feeling made me very hesitant to ask questions or to share ideas. It held me back. I can see those same characteristics in many of my students. It is easy to recognize and I have been pretty successful in breaking through it with a sense of humor and one-on-one time with the students.

Students also get frustrated when research gets bogged down or stuck. I explain that research is by its very definition bogged down or stuck. Research that is not stuck is called development. Part of my job is to be a cheerleader for the students to keep their spirits high, but I don’t plan on wearing a cheerleading skirt any time soon. Again, a sense of humor and personal attention from me works very well.

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

I believe it was Marc Anthony who said “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” There are few professions where this is more true than engineering. It will pay you well. It will create many opportunities for you. It will challenge you with difficult problems. It will introduce you to new people. It will take you to new places. It will open your mind to new concepts. Engineering is very versatile so you can mold your career into almost anything you want it to be. For all of these reasons, I highly encourage students to pursue engineering.

Don’t let anything discourage you from taking up engineering if that is where your interests and passions lie. The science that it is based on does not discriminate based on age, gender, religion, ethnicity, favorite sports team, or anything else. It is only people that do that and engineering is full of wonderful people.

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