Alumnus gives advice on life after PhD

ECE News

Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS
1/18/2017 1:35:56 PM

Story Highlights

ECE ILLINOIS alumnus Frank Kuo (BS '55, PhD '58) has three basic steps for success. One, find a mentor, two, collaborate with others, and three, network with as many people as possible. 

Kuo spoke to students at a luncheon about the options available to them after graduate school or after their PhD: teaching, research, neither, or both.  In his own career, he did them all. But it was important to him to get out into the workforce after earning his PhD. Kuo has been on the cutting edge of communication technology since he graduated. He created the first form of communication between computers, inventing the earliest form of Wi-Fi. 

Find a mentor. 

“You are here, and you have professors here. It’s very important to have a mentor who can help you,” he said. “And professors are excellent options.” Kuo’s mentor was Mac Van Valkenburg, a professor of electrical engineering who later became the dean of Engineering at Illinois. Kuo said Van Valkenburg helped guide him throughout his entire life. 

“It was important to have someone I could ask questions and to help me find the right career path and make the right decisions,” Kuo said. Van Valkenburg also helped Kuo with his research. Kuo attributes his first job and later success to his mentor helping him do such interesting work for his PhD. 

“He helped me throughout my life. Whenever I wanted to change I asked him, should I do this or not? He would always help me decide,” Kuo said. Van Valkenburg also worked with Kuo on research, which used one of the first computers, the Illiac I. “Computer science did not exist at the time, but I spent a lot of time on that computer,” he said. 

Kuo credits this work with getting him his first job at Bell Laboratories, one of the top research institutes at the time. 

Collaborate. 

“That is the second thing that is important in your life: to collaborate. You don’t know everything,” he said. “You know your specific PhD topic – but that’s it.”

Kuo said he took the job at Bell Laboratories in 1958 because he wanted to keep learning, but this time in industry. He figured Bell Labs would be a good place to begin broadening his knowledge. There, he worked with world-renowned scientists who were making important discoveries all the time. He also worked with the earliest computers at Bell Laboratories – but wasn’t too impressed. “I knew computers would be great, but they were pretty terrible at first,” he said. 

Kuo said he encourages students after their PhDs or graduate programs to first work in industry to learn as much as they can about various areas. Some of the best projects he ever worked on, Kuo said, were collaborations with people from different backgrounds. The most important thing he learned at Bell Laboratories was to collaborate.

More then than now, he believes, people collaborate on papers. Kuo said he would even publish papers with mathematicians, as well as with other engineers. Funding was less difficult to come by, as well. The goal was to publish whenever possible, and even better with many people from different disciplines. “Don’t be stuck-up about your accomplishments,” he said. “Collaborations are very important.”

Network. 

Kuo said he got to know Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson not because he was a renowned physicist at Bell Laboratories but because together, they played Go, one of the world’s oldest known board games. In 1976, after Anderson beat Kuo at every game of Go, Anderson won a Nobel prize. 

Kuo has lived everywhere from New Jersey to Hawaii. After his work at Bell Laboratories, Kuo took a position as a full professor at the University of Hawaii at the age of 32. There, he received funding from ARPA, now DARPA, to study and build a network based on packet switching. 

The result was ALOHAnet, which launched in 1971. Created by Kuo, along with Norman Abramson, Thomas Gaarder, Shu Lin, Wesley Peterson and Edward Wheldon, it was one of the earliest forms of radio communication incorporated with packet switching – meaning it was the earliest communication system similar to what is now called Wi-Fi. 

ALOHA originally stood for Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area and was used to communicate among different locations at the University of Hawaii, which were spread across the main Hawaiian Islands.

Kuo said the project, which paved the way for other communication networks, wouldn’t have been possible without the diverse backgrounds and collaboration of the team. “Wherever you go, don’t be proud. Don’t say ‘Well, they didn’t go to as good a school as I did, so I won’t work with them.’” Kuo said “They will teach you more than you know.”

This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' semi-annual magazine.

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