Dr. Jose C. Principe
UF Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering
2001-2002 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I have been teaching mostly graduate courses since I joined the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in 1985, because I belong to a graduate instruction area called Digital Signal Processing (DSP). My natural curiosity to understand the external world leads me to seek fundamental principles, normally captured in mathematics. As an engineer, I also know that theories are a simplification of the real world and as such, short cuts must be exercised for viable solutions. Moreover, engineering goes beyond physics because it not only explains the real world, but also invents new technological realities. This blend of science, art, and innovation is the hallmark of engineering.
As a scholar, I immensely enjoy working with graduate students, both in the laboratory and in the classroom, to communicate these three facets of engineering. It is not a simple undertaking because it requires from the students three very different capabilities: reasoning, model building and disciplined memorization. These days where undergraduate engineering education is being deprived of understanding and formulated as a set of recipes, students seek the “how to solve” instead of the “why is the solution set this way.” This pernicious aspect of undergraduate education must be counteracted intentionally at the graduate level through teaching strategies.
My vision of graduate instruction leads to the creation of a constructive atmosphere to imprint in the student’s intellect the methodology of science, to build the gift of autonomous thinking, and eloquence in oral and written expression. The core of my mentoring style is to develop a one to one, intense communication with a student by sharing my enthusiasm, vision and knowledge in the hope that (s)he will slowly absorb and integrate them in his/her cognitive space. This intense interaction is impossible to replace when the goal is to achieve the degree of autonomy required to withstand the test of time, as demanded by our fast paced technology landscape.
I do not claim to have been successful in all the cases, but I was fortunate to have worked with wonderful people, who are now well positioned in academia and in companies all over the world. I consider a PhD student ready to graduate when he/she is able to construct a convincing case, using preferably analytical arguments and facts from the literature, for the solution of a problem I did not know how to solve. Each of my 36 PhD students passed this test following different paths, so seeking a systematic description is illusory. I always tried to bring out the best in each of my students, without imposing my views. Mediocrity is an universal attractor. To counter this, I press firmly for simple principles such as professionalism, timeliness and excellence.
My philosophy of mentoring has to be backed up with more tangible requirements. The creation of a stimulating scientific atmosphere requires plenty of interesting problems, research funds, and recognition by our peers. The Computational NeuroEngineering Laboratory (CNEL) that I created in 1992 is a world recognized center for machine learning, neural networks and adaptive systems research. Our research projects range from the mathematical principles of learning theory, the use of dynamics for information processing, design of new paradigms for learning, and their implementations in stand alone DSP processors and/or neuromorphic hybrid (analog-digital) VLSI chips. These are exciting topics that attract top students from all over the world. Presently I am working with 19 graduate students, 10 PhD and nine Master students from the USA, China, France, India, Korea, Portugal, and Turkey. I organize the laboratory by projects and I meet with each group project once a week. Presently we have the following funded projects: Information theoretic learning (NSF), silicon cortex (ONR), brain computer interfaces (seed/DARPA), epileptic seizure warning (NIH), neural control of airplanes (NASA), interactive books (NSF) and biomimetic nanocomputing architectures (NSF). Each group has a leader (senior PhD) that coordinates the activities, and helps the new comers. Besides the group meetings I also meet students on a one-to-one basis when I see they need special help. And of course I talk informally with everybody in the lab almost every day. During Fall 1992 through Spring 1995, I advised (advanced research and MSc and doctoral research) 135 graduate students for a total of 730 student credit hours. I lost count ever since. The CNEL also attracts international visitors (professors or postdocs) for shorter periods of time, who also bring new perspectives (presently a Professor from Korea and another from Spain are visiting the lab). The CNEL has strong links to other laboratories on campus such as the Brain Institute, the Brain Dynamics Lab and the NIH Center for Emotion and Attention. We also keep close ties to other US Universities (Duke, MIT, Yale), research labs (MIT/Lincoln Labs, AFIT,NASA) and companies (NEC, Honeywell, Sarnoff), as well as international universities (McMaster in Canada, Helsinki in Finland, Riken in Japan, and Porto in Portugal).
This web of connections is fundamental to disseminate knowledge, attract and bring a sense of accomplishment to everybody. Each student knows that one of the expected outcomes for his/her activity is to publish. In my curriculum vitae I list four books, 10 book chapters, 83 referred journal papers and 180 referred conference proceedings. Almost all of them are co-authored with my students. The CNEL has also been asked to organize special sessions in prestigious international conferences. The CNEL weekly seminar is a very important ingredient to train students for oral presentations. During the academic year every student has to present his project/results to the full lab during a one-hour seminar.
Last but not least, I have to teach students the materials need to conduct research in the CNEL. I created in the early 90s two courses, adaptive signal processing (EEL6502) and neural networks (EEL 6814), which I teach once a year. Because I am very interested in computer-based instruction for undergraduates, I wrote an electronic, interactive book published by John Wiley and Sons in 2000. My goal nowadays is to attract undergraduate students for my research. With the help of an NSF grant, I have created a special classroom with an electronic board and one computer per student, where I am experimenting with new teaching methodologies for delivery of scientific information.