RIT Grads to Become First-Ever Microsystems Engineering Ph.D.s

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By 6:30 p.m. May 21, there will be two people in the world holding doctorates in microsystems engineering. Each will be a graduation-cap toss away from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Gordon Field House and Activities Center.

Anand Gopalan of Brighton and Mark Steinke of Rochester, graduate students in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, have the distinction of becoming the first-ever recipients—anywhere—of Ph.D. degrees in microsystems engineering during RIT commencement ceremonies. The day will bring a ceremonial end to years of undergraduate and graduate study that climaxed when each defended his doctoral dissertation last month. It will also mark the beginning of their professional lifetimes featuring salutations starting with “Dr.”

“That will be nice—it sounds good,” says Gopalan, who is not the first in his family to earn a doctorate. His mother, Kamala, an instructor at the University of Mumbai in India, holds a Ph.D. in English literature.

The path to an RIT Ph.D.

After earning RIT master’s degrees in engineering, Gopalan and Steinke began doctoral studies when RIT launched the microsystems engineering Ph.D. program in December 2002.

Gopalan, who completed his M.S. in electrical engineering in 2002, researched and designed built-in, self-test circuits and techniques for high-speed communication devices such as cell phones and wireless circuits. His research, partially funded by Semiconductor Research Corp., created new methodology for efficient and cost-effective testing of RF (radio-frequency) circuitry.

“It’s an exciting project,” says Gopalan of his research, which has attracted the attention of industry. Commercial applications are likely within two years, he says.

Originally from Mumbai, India (formerly known as Bombay), Gopalan, is currently interviewing for post-graduation positions in industry. After gaining “real-world” experience, he doesn’t rule out one day returning to academe and following in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a college instructor. “I would love to,” he says. “The tilt towards academics has always been there.”

Ph.D. candidates are from Mars (Pennsylvania, that is)

Steinke came to RIT from Mars (Mars, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, that is). After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from RIT, in 2000 and 2002 respectively, the timing was ideal for him to enter the microsystems engineering doctoral program.

Steinke researched advanced liquid cooling methods for microprocessors—an area of critical importance, he says, due to anticipated advancements in computer-chip processing capabilities over the next few years. Faster and more powerful microprocessors generate additional heat that needs to be dissipated. Conventional cooling methods, such as the use of fans, may prove inadequate, he says. “We can make it, but can we cool it?” he asks, depicting the conundrum.

Steinke’s microprocessor cooling method, developed with his advisor, Satish Kandlikar, the James E. Gleason Professor of Mechanical Engineering, uses a drop or less of liquid (water, water-glycol mixtures or refrigerants) in microchannels. Liquid offers enhanced cooling efficiency compared with air, Steinke says, and a “smaller footprint” required for microchannels translates to increased space for more powerful computer components. The result: smaller, faster and more powerful electronic devices.

After graduation, Steinke will join IBM Corp. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., as a thermal engineer working on next generation microprocessor cooling for mid-size servers and personal and laptop computers.

Like Gopalan, Steinke doesn’t rule out a future return to academe. “I’ve very much enjoyed the experience of teaching,” he says of his experience as an RIT instructor while pursuing his Ph.D.

Steinke will leave RIT with more than his three degrees. He met his future wife, Kate Prescott, at RIT. The couple, wed in 1999, celebrate their anniversary during commencement weekend. “It’s an action-packed weekend,” Steinke understates.

Pioneers in a growing RIT family

Gopalan and Steinke will always have the distinction of being pioneers: the first to earn microsystems engineering doctorates. By this time next year, however, they will no longer be alone—three more RIT graduates will join them. Currently, 26 other students are enrolled in RIT’s microsystems engineering Ph.D. program.

“This year’s commencement is a landmark in the history of RIT and defines the university’s role as a leader and innovator of leading-edge technology education,” says Mustafa Abushagur, RIT professor and director of microsystems engineering.

For the next 12 months, however, Drs. Gopalan and Steinke will be unique among 6.4 billion people on Planet Earth.

Note: RIT hosts its 120th annual commencement May 20 and 21. Academic Convocation, featuring an address by United States Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), begins at 4 p.m. Friday, May 20, in RIT’s Gordon Field House and Activities Center. The commencement ceremony for RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, including the microsystems engineering Ph.D. program, is 4:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21, in Gordon Field House and Activities Center. Four hundred thirty RIT engineering graduates will receive their degrees.