Yehia Massoud is the Wallace Bunn Endowed Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and the Director of the Center for Integrated Systems at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, (UAB). Before joining MIT, I had always managed to excel at every level with minimal last minute effort. It was at MIT where my limits were really challenged. I learned that intelligence can only take a person so far but if combined with strong commitment and consistent work, it can lead to profound success. It was my PhD thesis advisor, Professor Jacob White, who taught me the importance of perseverance and staying the course regardless of the difficulties and the obstacles along the way. In the midst of my PhD, I went through a tough six-month period, during which I was basically working day and night, with negligible progress, trying to solve a persistent problem in my numerical integral formulation that limited the formulation’s generality and applicability. During this period, Jacob regularly encouraged me to keep working at the problem and looking at it from different angles and perspectives. Jacob’s relentless commitment and patience enabled me to overcome the biggest obstacle in my PhD dissertation and led to the generation of an accurate and efficient generalized formulation that was highly regarded by the research community.
At MIT, I was very fortunate to have had research interactions, discussions and classes from great EECS professors such as Stephen Senturia, Steven Leeb, Dimitri Antoniadis, Anantha Chandrakasan, Srinivas Devadas, Munther Dahleh, and Jesús del Alamo. These professors put great emphasis on developing deep understanding of basics along with unwavering dedication to rigorous knowledge of advanced topics. This helped ignite an unending desire for attaining intuitive understanding as well as maintaining analytical rigor in my research. MIT EECS professors also have very high expectations of their students. I particularly remember my PhD qualification exam, where I was asked to solve some problems on the board. One of these problems was given by Prof. Markus Zahn. At the end of the allotted ten minutes, I noticed that Markus was visibly pleased. This came as a surprise to me since I did not reach a final solution. Markus then explained that the problem was an open problem and that he wanted to see how I would proceed in solving such a problem. He then told me he was pleased to see me reach the state of the art in solving this problem in those ten minutes. What struck me at that moment was how high the expectations were for EECS graduate students—to give an open problem in a qualifier exam. I decided then that I ought to have the same high expectation of myself and to never settle for less.
One of my most defining career moments was when I started my academic career as an assistant professor at Rice University in 2003. I needed to devise a plan for what I would do and how I would do it. I looked around and found that many junior professors in academia follow what they perceive as the safe tenure path, where they continue to grind their PhD topic until tenure. I viewed this common “safe” path as a trap that discourages breadth and broad mindedness as well as encouraging risk avoidance and complacency—leading to careers that are often highlighted by incremental research and insignificant contributions. I challenged myself to make my own path and to pursue quality research in the areas that I felt were important and valuable, regardless of my comfort level in these areas. I wanted to make a difference and have an impact.
Within two to three years of making this commitment, my group grew rapidly and we were able to make several well received contributions in multiple areas while developing a wide breadth and a clear research vision. Naturally, Rice liked my progress—so much that they promoted me to associate professor during my fourth year (three years faster than the standard Rice cycle). Four years later, while I was in the process of getting promoted to full professor, I was recruited by UAB to help rebuild its Electrical and Computer Engineering program into one of the top interdisciplinary research programs in the Southeast. I felt I could make a significant difference as department head so I accepted the challenge. Thanks to MIT EECS for teaching me that if you believe in yourself, and have the strong will, unflappable commitment and perseverance, success will follow.