Wendi Heinzelman, Dean of Graduate Studies for Arts, Sciences and Engineering, at the University of Rochester in NY, began her career as an Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (with a secondary appointment in the Computer Science Department) at the University of Rochester in Spring 2001 because she wanted to have impact. “I went into an academic research career in order to have impact—through my research, through my teaching, and through my mentoring of graduate students.”
Wendi describes herself as ‘a legacy at MIT’ as both her father and uncle went to MIT in the ‘60s, often speaking fondly of their time at the ‘Tute. She was particularly attracted by the fact that her research interests – electrical engineering and computer science – were both under one umbrella at MIT, and by MIT’s reputation as a worldclass research institute. When she visited during her senior year in college, her mind was made up on meeting her soon-to-be advisor Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan, and, in her words, “finding EECS to be a vibrant, exciting place to learn and do research.”
Beginning at MIT meant transitions: new school, new research focus, new friends, new city, Wendi relates. She credits her immediate fit with the guidance she received from her “amazing advisor” who taught her how to do interesting, relevant, cutting-edge research—in addition to building lasting friendships that are still vibrant 15 years hence.
Wendi began her master’s thesis focusing on image processing, developing approaches for more efficient video coding transmission over wireless channels. At that time, she notes, Anantha had started a project called μAMPS, which focused on the design of a new type of wireless device called a sensor node. These devices, which were novel for their ultra low power operation while providing sensing, processing and communication capabilities, were starting to create a splash in the research community, as they could be autonomously networked together to provide large amounts of data about the environment.
She remembers Anantha telling her about this exciting new area that held potential for novel solutions to many open research questions, and how this would be a great area for her to do her PhD thesis research. “At the same time,” she recalls, “Anantha cautioned me that it was a little futuristic, and, while a great opportunity if I wanted to go into academia, might not be the best research topic if I was seeking a career in industry.” As it turned out, she was already very interested in an academic career, so she jumped at this opportunity—launching her career and research into protocols, algorithms, architectures and systems for wireless sensor networks.
Another defining moment in her graduate career came when a new faculty member, Dr. Hari Balakrishnan, was hired in EECS. “I took Hari’s class on networking,” Wendi says, “and, in addition to being a really interesting and highly practical class, this class greatly benefitted my research. Hari became a co-advisor on my thesis, providing me the unique opportunity to have someone with a systems and hardware perspective (Anantha) as well as someone with a networking perspective (Hari) to help guide me in my research and shape my career goals.”
Receiving her Master’s degree in 1997 and PhD in 2000, Wendi notes, “MIT enabled me to grow in many ways and meet many brilliant people.” She has since reconnected with many of her MIT colleagues at conferences, at NSF review panels, and even via social networking sites—valuable professionally and personally. Wendi also notes that EECS afforded her many unique and valuable opportunities. “Taking or TA’ing courses from those whose work was seminal to the field, such as when I TA’d DSP for Al Oppenheim and Greg Wornell or when I took a course on digital communications with Dave Forney, showed me that good teaching and good research really do go hand in hand.”
Wendi says that although she hadn’t planned on entering academic administration, when the opportunity arose to take on the position of Dean of Graduate Studies in
Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) at the University of Rochester, she thought about how she could put her skills towards helping not just her own graduate students but all those in AS&E to achieve their academic goals and launch their careers. As Dean for 3.5 years now, she notes how rewarding it has been for her to work with Master’s and PhD students in disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. She notes: “My training in EECS at MIT prepared me well for setting policies and developing programs that aim to support the excellence of our graduate students, for working with a diverse group of people to achieve goals, and for providing a balanced view of situations.” Her participation in the Women in EECS group at MIT as well as her work with her advisors showed her the importance of strong mentoring toward success in graduate school and in starting a career. “These are lessons I use to this day as I create and execute a range of professional development opportunities for our graduate students, on everything from how to succeed in academia to how to be a mentor and how to be mentored to seeing and making the most of opportunities in diversity.”
In all, Wendi expresses her gratitude to MIT, and to EECS in particular, for the multiple opportunities made available — her exposure to world-class teaching and research and to the mentorship from “two of the best advisors anyone could ask for in Anantha Chandrakasan and Hari Balakrishnan.” She continues to use the ideas she learned at MIT when teaching her own classes on DSP, Wireless Communication and Wireless Sensor Networks, when she advises her own undergraduate, Master’s and PhD students, and when she does research on communications, networking, and computing. “I hope I can have even a fraction of the impact on my students that all of the folks I interacted with in EECS at MIT had on me!”