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My Path to Becoming a Computer Engineering Assistant Professor

January 18, 2017

About Me

Ben Drozdenko is a full-time Ph.D. candidate, the former Northeastern U. campus-wide MathWorks TA, and a graduate research assistant in the implementation of MATLAB- and Simulink-based Cognitive Radio frameworks, co-advised by Prof. Kaushik Chowdhury and Prof. Miriam Leeser. For 5 years, Ben worked for MathWorks, creators of MATLAB and Simulink. There, as a Signal Processing Content Specialist, he wrote technical documentation and examples for DSP & Communications area products such as LTE System Toolbox. Earlier, as a Training Engineer, he traveled across the country to present material on the usage and capabilities of various MathWorks computer software products, focusing on Model-Based Design. For 4 years before that, he worked as a Systems Engineer for Raytheon, mainly on the forward-based X-Band Transportable Radar as part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System program.  

My Path to Becoming a Computer Engineering Assistant Professor

I grew up in a mostly rural area of Litchfield county, Connecticut.  My high school there was mostly known for its agricultural program, but I didn’t want to be a farmer; I wanted to do something challenging in the tech industry. As a junior in high school, I’d had high marks in Physics and Pre-Calculus, and was offered the Rensselaer medal, which came with a $40,000 scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  At that time, my immediate family and I had no idea what engineers were or what they did; I thought the engineer was the guy who drove the train.  In college, I soon found out how important engineers are to a developed society, and how they make an impact on nearly every aspect of people’s lives, including the foods we eat, the machines that give us health care, and the temperature control in buildings.  By 2004, I’d completed my B.S. from RPI, dual majoring in Computer Science and Computer & Systems Engineering.  For four years, I worked as a Systems Engineer at Raytheon on the Ballistic Missile Defense System Project. After that, I worked for five years at MathWorks, first as a Training Engineer teaching other engineers how to use MATLAB & Simulink, and then writing about it for their Signal Processing & Communications area documentation.  By the end of 2013, I decided that I wanted to complete my Ph.D., and I left industry to pursue research full-time.

In brief, my research revolves around the fact that we live in an increasingly interconnected world.  The term “Internet of Things” (IoT) describes the many different applications and purposes of electronic devices with network connectivity, many of which have specific size and energy requirements.  The wireless protocols used by these devices are constantly changing, demonstrating the need for reconfigurability in their implementations. The frequency bandwidths are all reserved by the FCC for various purposes, and this spectrum scarcity has caused the need for radios to coexist on the same bandwidths. I prototype designs for this coexistence using the 802.11a/g protocol, used as a basis for computer Wi-Fi, and the LTE protocol, which is used for mobile phones. In my research, I focus on Hardware-Software co-design for heterogeneous computing architectures, which consist of multiple computing elements like CPUs and FPGAs. I do this as a means of enabling engineers to design, build, and test these devices in a way that can adapt to multiple platforms.  I emphasize high-level design as a means to build processing blocks from which low-level descriptions (e.g. C code, HDL) can be auto-generated for either computing element. 

I chose Northeastern because it was the only university, in my opinion, that would give a guy like me a break.  I was fortunate enough to find a research track that really matters and is also very interesting to me.  Also, I was especially fortunate to find funding in my role as the MathWorks TA, in which I served from 2014 to 2016.  I truly enjoyed the MathWorks TA role because I got to help with both interesting academic problems and cutting edge research projects for a wide variety of concentration areas. Graduate students came to me for assistance using MATLAB and Simulink for course problems in various branches of Engineering, including Mechanical, Civil, Chemical, Biomedical, Electrical and Computer. Graduate research assistants come for help with their research projects in such diverse fields as cell biology analysis and contaminated groundwater electrochemical remediation. Students on co-op at Harvard Medical School had also come to me with MATLAB questions. Professors have asked me to give presentations for their classes. Most of all, I enjoyed the questions from undergraduates who are working on their senior capstone projects or simply trying to use MATLAB for the first time to program a Tic-Tac-Toe game. When new college students begin using MATLAB for introductory Engineering coursework and continue to use it throughout their education, I feel assured they are embarking on careers that will be illustrious and successful. 

In the future, I’m planning to accomplish my lifelong dream of becoming a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Computer Engineering at a respectable ABET-accredited university.  I’ve already been given offers to interview on-campus at six universities throughout the U.S.  However, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to do a Post-Doc in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Center; that place is amazing!  I believe that new computer and wireless technology are the most interesting topics in engineering today; hence, the need for the future workforce to be well-versed in these disciplines is critical. I find teaching to be a very rewarding experience, and when done properly I believe I can make a profoundly positive impact on burgeoning young minds. I had a lot of support throughout my educational and professional career, and I consider teaching to be my opportunity to give back.  I see teaching in STEM as a way of raising the economic levels of the working class and leading young adults to do great things. In my teaching, I hope to pass my enthusiasm to the students as well. As an engaged and committed educator, I don't ever plan to retire because I feel that a life spent consistently learning and teaching is a life well-lived.