The idea man

Leonard Ferrari is electrical engineering's mover and shaker

by Elizabeth Crumbley

Leonard FerrariWhen Leonard Ferrari mentions that he plays basketball three or four times most weeks with faculty members and graduate students, it's easy to conjure up an image of him besting taller and younger opponents. Ferrari thinks big, which is why he doesn't shy away from a game in which height and youth offer huge advantages, and also why he has in a short time established a remarkably high score for putting ideas into action at Virginia Tech.

"If I can get everyone working cooperatively on a project, that project will succeed," Ferrari says when asked about his method of following through with a plan. "I don't want to be a micro-manager."

Ferrari definitely is no micro-manager; he is an idea man. Since coming to Virginia Tech as head of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) in 1995, he has launched a surprising number of programs in the College of Engineering and has helped faculty members win major national grants.

Known around the university for having a mind of his own--and speaking it--Ferrari is direct and to the point, with compelling energy.

"Leonard is extremely creative. He thinks outside the box," remarks F. William Stephenson, dean of the college of engineering. "But he's also a good advocate for his ideas and is very collaborative. He builds bridges to other departments and colleges and is generous in dispersing the ownership of projects he initiates."

"When it comes to ideas, I think I'm market driven," Ferrari remarks. He cites the example of the college's new Graduate Program in Information Technology (GPIT), a collaboration between ECpE, the Pamplin College of Business, and the Computer Science Department. Centered at the Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, it's designed for professionals who want to work full-time and earn a master's degree or certificate in the fields of computer engineering, computer science, business, and telecommunications systems.

When he learned, shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech, that close to 20,000 information technology jobs were vacant in Virginia, and that the state's universities were producing only about 1,500 graduates in the field each year, Ferrari proposed and developed the GPIT program with the help of ECpE Professor Bill Tranter and other faculty members from ECpE and the business college.

"I listen to people and try to find out what they need," he says. "I divest myself of ownership of the idea fairly early; I go to experts and make the idea their projects."

"Leonard has a knack for turning a problem into an opportunity," Stephenson says. "For example, we suddenly had far more students enrolling in computer engineering than in electrical engineering. So he thought of establishing a College of Engineering minor in engineering software and computation for all of our students, which we anticipate will restore balance to the enrollments."

Actually, Ferrari created this particular problem. He realized there would be a national shortage of computer engineers and, consequently, a great market for graduates, so in 1996 he removed ECpE's existing cap on undergraduate enrollment in the curriculum. "The students poured in," he notes. "There was a cap because there weren't enough funds or faculty members to support a large computer engineering program. This year the students are split equally between computer and electrical engineering. Nearly 220 students were expected to enter computer engineering this semester. Next year 60 percent of our undergraduates will be computer engineering majors."

As for the funds and faculty members to support this shift? Ferrari smiles. "Right now we're trying to figure out how to pay for this. It has created a temporary overload for our faculty, but Provost Peggy Meszaros and Bill Stephenson are helping to support the growth."
C-Tech2 girls Despite his belief in staying in tune with the marketplace, Ferrari emphatically says he does not view academia as a commercial venture.

"If a university were strictly a business, it wouldn't have a philosophy department," he says. "I am very supportive of philosophy departments; people have to learn to think as well as learn technical skills."

The C-Tech2 summer program provides computer education for local girls in their junior year of high school.

"In fact, it troubles me that we don't have a better reward system, that artists can't earn a living, that public school teachers are paid $22,000, while basketball players and entertainers make millions. We need to realize that the long-term benefits of education will be lost if money is the main goal."

Virtual corporations with real results

One of Ferrari's most successful and unusual brain-children is another collaboration between students, faculty members, and industry: the Virtual Corporation Program.

"This is more than market-driven," he comments. "There are lots of class projects and competitions in the College of Engineering, but students need a corporate experience to satisfy new engineering accreditation requirements and to be more attractive to prospective employers."

During fall semester 1997, with university and industry support, faculty members and students from several engineering disciplines and other colleges--architecture, arts and sciences, business, human resources and education, and veterinary medicine--fired up two virtual corporations: Personal Electric Rapid Transit Systems (PERTS) and Distributed Information Systems Corp. (DISC). ECpE Professor Krishnan Ramu helped develop the interdisciplinary program and acts as director.

"This is one of the greatest experiences in my 23 years of teaching at three different universities," says Ramu. "Leonard created this program, but he never says 'do it my way.' He is always positive about the growth of the program and he encourages the students to use their creativity in development and problem solving."

The program has become so popular, Ramu notes, that the number of students involved has more than tripled, from 50 in 1997 to 160 today, and about half of those students come from the business college. "Recruiters tell us that this program is unique, and that it is the very kind of experience they want students to have," Ramu says. Along with the educational experience, a major goal for the virtual corporations is to develop products that will be licensed to industry. (For more about the virtual corporations, see Virginia Tech Magazine, Spring 1999, Vol. 21, No. 3.)

The man behind the ideas

Growing up in New York City and attending school in the borough of Queens, Ferrari always thought he would become an engineer. His father, an Italian immigrant, and his uncles were engineers, and Leonard was accepted as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 16.

"I thought for awhile about medical school," he says, "but in the 1960s electrical engineering looked like it was going to be a hot field." After MIT, he went to Northeastern University in Boston for his master's degree and then worked for Polaroid and for Bell and Howell for 12 years.

Fresh out of graduate school, he was hired by Polaroid founder Edwin Land as a personal consultant. "I learned a lot from Land. He was a good builder of teams of bright people. He had terrific respect for his employees, he gave us authority and responsibility--and I was just a kid of 22 at the time," Ferrari says.

After working in a number of administrative positions and establishing a new corporate research group for Bell and Howell in Pasadena, Ferrari left the company in 1975 to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California (UC) at Irvine. He stayed at Irvine, holding simultaneous positions in the School of Engineering, the department of information and computer science, and the College of Medicine. He went on to become chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean of the School of Engineering. Along the way, he raised more than $8 million in gifts and research contracts for engineering and medicine, and established and directed the National Science Foundation Center for High Speed Image Processing at UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.

While at UC Irvine, Ferrari also met and married June Gorman, who had finished her bachelor's at UC Berkeley and was working on her master's. Gorman was a full-time K-12 teacher while they lived in California. "She's taught me a lot about teaching styles and techniques," Ferrari says. "We work well together."

"I get ideas from June," he says, "and I bounce my ideas off her." One of Gorman's ideas spawned a new ECpE project--the Women's Opportunity Program in Computing at Virginia Tech. "June told me Blacksburg has a need for computer education for girls, so I created a program," Ferrari says. He convinced IBM to donate computers to Virginia Tech; Bevlee Watford, the college's associate dean for academics agreed to develop and direct an annual summer program in computer use for high school juniors, C-Tech2 ( ECpE also created a computer lab for girls at Margaret Beeks Elementary.

A global vision

Ferrari's colleagues admire the far-reaching implications of his initiatives. "Leonard sees the big picture. He has a global vision," Stephenson comments.

Ferrari played a lead role in creating the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium (VMEC), a partnership among universities, industry, and state government aimed at making Virginia a national leader in microelectronics education and research. He proposed the idea that a joint microelectronics undergraduate/master's program should be offered cooperatively by the six VMEC member schools: Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the College of William and Mary, and George Mason University. He co-authored a state funding proposal with his fellow VMEC department heads and currently oversees the program implementation as the first chair of the consortium's operations committee. In 1998, the General Assembly allocated $2.5 million to expand laboratory facilities at VMEC schools.

So far, Ferrari's most expansive idea-become-reality is the Alexandria Research Institute (ARI), established in 1998 and directed by ECpE Professor Saifur Rahman. ARI faculty members represent several engineering disciplines and computer science. Set in Northern Virginia, the ARI is an attempt to put faculty members and researchers in a geographic area that is hungry for high-tech knowledge and inventions. "Virginia Tech needs a strong presence in Northern Virginia in information technology and business," says Ferrari. "My vision is for the institute to have world-class faculty members and an outstanding graduate program that will attract federal and corporate funds for research."

Somehow, Ferrari also finds time to continue his own research in the areas of image processing, computer graphics, and digital signal processing. For the past several years he has been developing new computational procedures and computer architectures for spline functions, which, he explains, are the basis for computer graphics and finite element computations. His recent work could lead to a reduction in the level of computation in these fields by several orders of magnitude, and he currently has a joint project with Hewlett Packard and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

For the next millennium

Naturally, a mover and shaker has plans for the future. Ferrari is already working with ECpE colleagues Arun Phadke, Jeff Reed, and Scott Midkiff to establish the International Center for Integrated Critical National Infrastructure. The idea is to develop an international network of universities and companies to support power, communications, and computer systems research for rapid disaster response and emerging nations. The Virginia Tech group is meeting with representatives from universities in Switzerland, France, Sweden, Finland, and Hong Kong, all of whom share a desire for a disaster response network. "We want collaboration between universities and international companies," Ferrari notes. "This program also will give our students a mission and purpose in their studies abroad."

Perhaps the most exciting new project for Ferrari is his "corporate incubator/graduate program" concept. His plan is to build faculty-run start-up corporations around the intellectual properties developed in ECpE, and to hire top-flight graduate students to work in the corporations while earning their degrees. "If our students prefer to take industrial jobs instead of going to graduate school, why not draw them here with decent salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 and corporate stock-options?" Ferrari asks. This entrepreneurial program already has a pilot project. Ted Rappaport, ECpE professor and founder of the Mobile & Portable Radio Research Group, has started Wireless Valley® Communications, Inc., with the endorsement of Ferrari and the Bradley Endowment.

Ferrari presents an unusual mix of self-confidence and modesty, and when asked why he thinks so many of his ideas have come to fruition, he gives credit to his colleagues and the university itself. "My colleagues in ECpE and across the university have worked incredibly hard on these new initiatives and have somehow maintained their commitment to excellence in teaching and research. The administration at Virginia Tech has been very receptive. The people here are open to new ideas. I believe that I have been able to do things here that couldn't possibly have been done at any other university."

During Leonard Ferrari's tenure as department head, existing ECpE research and education programs have flourished. Examples of recent achievements by other faculty members in the department are:

Center for Power Electronics Systems (CPES)

In 1998 Fred Lee, Lewis A. Hester Chair and director for 16 years of the Virginia Power Electronics Center, led a successful bid to establish the CPES at Virginia Tech. This is the first National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center in Virginia and one of few such centers in the nation. The mission of the CPES, which has initial funding of $12.35 million from the NSF and a commitment of $1.5 million from the state, is to make the U.S. the most efficient user of electrical energy in the world.

Center for Wireless Telecommunications (CWT)

The CWT was established in 1993 by Virginia as a technology development center. In 1998 the CWT, directed by Charles Bostian, Clayton Ayers Chair, led Virginia Tech in a successful bid to acquire four licenses in the Federal Communication Commission's first local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) auction. This made Tech the first university to license LMDS bandwidth, which is used for wireless communications service.

Fiber and Electro-Optics Research Center (FEORC)

Since Rick Claus, Willis G. Worcester Chair, founded FEORC--Virginia's first technology development center–-in 1986, the center has developed the largest instructional program for fiber optics in the U.S. and has become one of the world's most prolific sources of advances in fiber optics technology. In 1998 FEORC was awarded one of its largest grants to date: $9.6 million from the Naval Research Laboratory for a five-year optical sciences research program.

Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group (MPRG)

The MPRG, a technology development center founded in 1990 by Ted Rappaport, James S. Tucker Chair, has become one of the world's foremost resources for wireless communications research and education. SitePlanner, a recent invention by MPRG researchers, led to a start-up company, Wireless Valley® Communications, Inc. SitePlanner is the first software/hardware tool of its kind to completely automate the installation, design, and management of wireless local-area networks and phone systems.

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