Interview: Dr. C.L. Max Nikias, USC Viterbi School of Engineering

My interview today is with Dr. C. L. Max Nikias, Dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering ( The school recently changed its named in honor of Andrew Viterbi, one of the founders of Qualcomm, and I thought it might be interesting to hear about how that happened. I also asked Dean Nikias about the research the school is working on and his thoughts on some of the up and coming technology.

BK: How did the change to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering happen, and why did Dr. Viterbi decide to work with USC?

MN: Andy Viterbi says that he and the engineering school grew up together. He worked for JPL full time while studying for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering here and he persuaded several JPL colleagues to go to USC. They included Sol Golomb, Lloyd Welch and Bill Lindsey, all very distinguished members of our current faculty who are now members of the National Academy of Engineering. This was the era of Dean Zohrab Kaprielian when USC engineering began to get very, very good, particularly in the area of digital communications technology. Then after the engineering school started its Distance Education Network (DEN) to offer graduate education to working engineers, Qualcomm became its first major customer. Certainly it was very gratifying on a personal level, but you have to remember that Andy's relationship with the school involved three deans and extends to many individuals on our faculty. This is a huge vote of confidence in the school by one of the great engineers and entrepreneurs of our times. It has affected everyone - faculty, students and staff, and other areas of USC. Everyone has a genuine and strong affection for Andy and his wife Erna, but there's also new energy, an exuberance that comes from their endorsement. This place is on fire.

BK: What are some of the things USC is doing in the area of industrial relations?

MN: I mentioned DEN. We believe our Internet technology is the most advanced distance education interface anywhere. We offer more than 20 M.S. degrees through DEN and currently have about 800 students. Virtually all of them are working engineers whose tuition is paid by their employers - top technology-oriented organizations like Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Qualcomm, NASA, Intel, Ericsson and ChevronTexaco. To remain technologically competitive, companies have to constantly upgrade the skills of their engineers. Lifelong learning is probably important for everyone, but it is definitely critical for engineers.

We have also been forming partnerships with industry on technology endeavors. We formed the Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies with ChevronTexaco to apply information technology tools to extracting more petroleum from existing oilfields. We started the Pratt & Whitney Institute for Collaborative Engineering with Pratt & Whitney and Korean Air to develop new aircraft safety and maintenance technologies. Frankly, such centers are not really anything that new for an engineering school. Engineering schools are generally the part of a university that is closest to industry because we do both long range fundamental research and shorter term applied research. If we are going to be successful with our applied research we have to pay close attention to industry.

We also have many individuals from corporations who advise faculty, serve on advisory committees, counsel students and are otherwise involved with the Viterbi School. Industry depends on a steady stream of well-trained engineers and I want our students to be hired when they graduate. So we need to listen to them and it is in industry's interest to pay attention to the education of engineers. That doesn't mean that corporations dictate our curriculum but we need and welcome their feedback. To ignore them and adopt an ivory tower mentality would be foolish, not in our interest, nor in their's.

BK: What kind of research is USC's Viterbi School of Engineering focused on today, and what do you see as the major areas of promise in the future?

MN: We are very strong in the area of digital communications, in which I would include the broad fields of information technology, wireless, Internet and multimedia. We are exceptionally strong in computer science. We have the second largest robotics program in the country and we are starting to do bleeding edge work in nanotechnology. We are already strong in biomedical technology and this area is growing rapidly particularly with our new Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Engineering Research Center. This center, a collaboration between the Viterbi School, the Keck School of Medicine and Caltech and UC - Santa Cruz, is developing biologically inspired implantable microelectronic devices capable of direct communication with human tissue. The idea is to treat presently incurable human diseases such as blindness, paralysis and memory loss and it is not as pie in the sky as it may sound. Mark Humayon, an ophthalmologist and engineer who is the director of the center has already implanted a device that has brought rudimentary sight to some blind patients. Jerry Loeb, another physician engineer who is co-director is in clinical trials with his Bion - short for bionic neuron - a neuromuscular stimulator used to treat stroke and other patients. Other areas where I think we are doing well are earthquake engineering, materials science and petroleum engineering.

BK: How active are you with technology transfer, and what are some of the companies which have started based on USC technology?

MN: There are currently about a dozen start up companies oriented around technologies from the Viterbi School. Recent ones include Eyematic, which uses face recognition technology. Fetch Technology provides smart datamining and information retrieval methods. Memgen specializes in "printing" microscopic 3-D forms. FastExchange is an electronic commerce brokerage. Audyssey Laboratories develops innovative audio software that is incorporated in today's home and car consumer electronics products to enhance the listening experience. None of these companies are household names, at least not yet.

Many of the Viterbi school's technologies touch people's lives every day though. The Internet's Domain Name System - dot com, dot edu, etc - was created at our Information Sciences Institute. Researchers from that institute also collaborated with others on the Transfer Control Protocol and Internet Protocol - TCP/IP - the foundation for transmitting data over the Internet. And history is repeating itself in this regard in the field of Grid technolgy. The Globus Toolkit developed at USC and Argonne National Labs has been adopted by the computer industry including IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Toshiba and others.

Before he joined our faculty, Irving Reed and a colleague Gus Solomon invented a powerful error correction code that was long admired for its mathematical beauty but was considered unsuitable for commercial applications. But the Reed-Solomon Codes eventually became the standard error correction method used on compact disks and fax machines. Reed also designed the image compression system adopted by AOL and USC engineering faculty did a lot of the fundamental work that led to the jpeg and mpeg standards. And we're still very actively working in this area. Sol Golomb's mathematical coding schemes enable us to receive the pristine imagery transmitted from the Mars Rovers all the way back to earth.

Technology transfer is very important to me and I think we're getting better at it. The Al Mann Institute and our two National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers have very robust technology transfer programs. We partner with companies. We listen to them. We try to collaborate to go beyond develop new technologies into real products.

BK: Is the uptick in defense R&D spending having an effect on the school?

MN: Yes. Immediately after 9/11, I made a decision to pursue defense funding, which seemed likely to increase. USC has a long history of serving the nation. USC's first engineering research contract was to help Lockheed during World War Two. I'm very proud that the Department of Homeland Security chose USC as the site of its first Center of Excellence, the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. This center is a collaboration between the USC Viterbi School and the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development. Defense funding is important to all engineering schools because defense agencies pay for a lot of basic research that often leads to big things completely outside of defense. I'm sure your readers know that there wouldn't be an Internet if it hadn't been for DARPA funding. But defense agencies are funding some of the biomedical research I described earlier. The U.S. Army started the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT), which has academics from three USC schools including engineering, collaborating with Hollywood creative talent and military officers to apply virtual reality technologies to create military training vehicles. ICT created a very good training system to teach small unit tactics that uses video game technology. That was licensed to a video game company that is in the process of releasing a souped up version as a commercial video game called Full Spectrum Warrior. I just learned that one of our researchers has started modifying that game to create a virtual reality module to treat soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

BK: Thanks!


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