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Engineering News Winter 2016

From Nigeria to SCU

A conversation with Tokunbo Ogunfunmi

A short month, February gives us much to celebrate. So, in honor of National Engineers Week and Black History Month, we send a valentine to SCU’s first black professor in the School of Engineering, Tokunbo Ogunfunmi. Born and raised in Nigeria, Ogunfunmi earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and then joined the electrical engineering faculty in 1990. A highly respected professor, industry consultant, and IEEE Distinguished Lecturer, he is best known for his groundbreaking research in signal processing and integrated circuit design. In 2014 he was selected as a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow, a joint effort of 100 African-born North American scholars to turn “the continent’s ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain circulation’” by returning to Africa to teach.

Recently, Aldo Billingslea, SCU’s associate provost for diversity and inclusion, sat down for a chat with Dr. Ogunfunmi.

AB: Can you share some insight about your family structure growing up in Nigeria?

TO: I grew up in a large family of eight kids. I was number five out of eight—six boys and two girls. Neither of my parents graduated with a college degree, but they placed a high premium on education and made sure every one of us graduated from college in their lifetime. Many of us have second and third degrees.

AB: How did science and engineering come into your life?

TO: In high school, my favorite subjects—in order—were mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. My parents’ dream was for me to become a medical doctor, but I struggled with biology and my aptitude toward medicine wasn’t there. Secondly, sight of blood makes me squeamish; so I told them I would like to do engineering and promised to make up for it by getting a doctorate. They were disappointed, but they accepted it.

AB: So, being squeamish about blood is one reason why not to choose medicine, but what is it besides enjoying math that compelled you towards engineering?

TO: Okay, I will tell you two stories. One was, when I was little, my father had a transistor radio—one of those little boxes that have batteries. It had AM, FM, shortwave. One time it broke and I took it apart. That created a desire in me to know what was going on there. Secondly, the U.S. manned lunar landing in July 1969 was a watershed event for me. I was in secondary school and I wanted to see it live. We didn’t have a TV at home, so I begged my dad to take me to the school library where they had an old black and white TV. I saw it live and it made a permanent impact—I wanted to understand how such a system can be built to accomplish the huge task of landing a man on the surface of the moon and returning him to Earth safely. Because of those two experiences I developed an aptitude and desire to study engineering.

AB: Did you feel it was a calling, the drive to take the radio apart? And did you put it back together?

TO: That’s a good question! I fiddled with it, but I don’t know that I fixed it! I don’t think that I would say it’s a calling; I’d say it fits my natural abilities. If I was doing something else, it’s not “me.” But with this, I feel at home.

AB: Did you have engineering role models? Were there people who influenced you?

TO: I will mention two. My brother was an engineer, and I had a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, the late Prof. Awojobi, who was said to be one of the most brilliant engineers Nigeria had at the time.

AB: How did you decide on electrical engineering?

TO: My brother was working at NITEL, the national telecommunications company at the first satellite station in Nigeria. We would visit him and he would take us to this station with a huge telescope and screens where they were communicating real-time with the INTELSAT satellite which carried all the overseas phone calls. I thought, “Wow, this is great! This is what electrical engineers do.” So that gave me a push toward studying electrical engineering.

AB: What led to your decision to pursue the Ph.D. at Stanford?

TO: As I mentioned, I had promised my parents I would become a doctor. But also, after I got my undergraduate degree, I felt I had just scratched the surface. We take all these science courses and then in the final two years or so you get the engineering courses, and I thought “Okay, what’s next?” During my second year at the University of Ife, a new lecturer, Dr. Dele Ajayi, had just returned with a Stanford Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He taught me physics and encouraged all of us to aim high, and he spoke very highly of Stanford. The other reason was that after I graduated from University of Ife, and just before I started the mandatory one-year of service to the country—the National Youth Service Corps—I ran into a friend three years my senior to whom I had always looked up, Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande. He told me he was studying for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford and encouraged me to apply. Tayo, as we call him, is now a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. I was admitted to Stanford and refused other admission offers I had in the U.K. to Imperial College and King’s College, University of London.

AB: Coming from Nigeria as an immigrant there are some transitions you have to go through. Did you encounter any obstacles, either as an immigrant or because you were black coming to the Valley?

TO: Challenges … yes, of course, like anybody else. But because my friend was already here also studying at Stanford, it helped my transition. And I had other friends from Nigeria who were also at Stanford. But it was still a challenge being in a new environment with cold weather. I was always wearing jackets; even in the spring, I was cold. And then, of course, the culture is different. Everyone was talking so fast, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. So I had to get used to the way people talk.

AB: What else was striking to you about the cultural differences?

TO: People here are more direct. The culture in Nigeria is more deferential to older folks. If someone is older than you, you can’t really address them directly or look them in the eye. You have to look down. So that was a bit of a change; I was always looking down. That’s one thing I like about the culture here—everybody is valued, everybody matters, and everybody has a say and can tell what’s on their mind. In the culture I grew up in, that was not always true.

Going through elementary school, high school, even the University of Ife wasn’t very hard for me in terms of academics. But when I got to Stanford, I found that the competition was much tougher. So I had to step up my game, and that was the challenge at first. I remember a computer architecture class where some of the students in the class were working at IBM as part of the team that designed the IBM 360 mainframe. And I was thinking, “I don’t know much about computers and I’m taking class with these guys!” I felt inferior, but I just had to say to myself, “Look, it doesn’t matter; you can still do well.” Our backgrounds were not the same.

AB: When you graduated from Stanford, how were you received as an engineer? Did you work in industry first?

TO: I worked in some companies in Silicon Valley and at AT&T Bell Labs, at the time one of the top research labs. I was well received at AT&T even though I was one of very few black people in the company at the time. I had a great mentor there who was also a Stanford Ph.D.

AB: How did you hear about Santa Clara?

TO: About two or three months from finishing my Ph.D. I ran into Noe Lozano, assistant dean in the School of Engineering at Stanford. He asked if I was interested in academia, told me Santa Clara was hiring, and encouraged me to send my résumé. I did and was invited to a full day of interviews with a one-hour lecture presentation. Later I received an offer for the position of Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science—EECS as our department was known then. I decided to come to Santa Clara because I love the Bay Area and wanted to remain here. I felt Santa Clara was a smaller, intimate version of Stanford where I could thrive professionally.

AB: You’ve been a part of Santa Clara engineering across two different centuries. How has it changed over the years, particularly from your perspective as a black man on this campus?

TO: Much has changed but much still needs to be changed. There are more women students and more women faculty in engineering. This is great.

I believe I am the first black faculty in engineering at SCU. However, the number of black students in engineering in my opinion is still very low in real numbers and as a percentage. In that sense, not much has changed for me. It is a very difficult problem to solve.

The pipeline has to be filled right from elementary school to high school; hence my involvement with Engineers4Tomorrow. E4T is dedicated to helping get middle and high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through hands-on workshops that help them see themselves as future engineers.

Also, SCU has to become more affordable for minority students who many times cannot afford the high tuition at SCU.

AB: You’re advancing engineering education not only here in the U.S., but also in Africa. Talk to us about your work as a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow.

TO: When I was invited to Covenant University in Lagos-Ota, I relished the idea of being able to give back to the country where I grew up. I gave several talks to undergraduate students and developed curriculum for a new bachelor’s degree program on the Internet of Things Engineering. The first in Nigeria, it is on track for adoption by the Nigerian National Universities Commission. I also provided research guidance and mentorship to Ph.D. and M.S. students interested in signal processing and communications research. Covenant University is one of the best private universities in Nigeria, and indeed in West Africa.

I also taught two classes during my brief visit: Digital Signal Processing and Transform Methods in Engineering. The students were all eager and excited to learn, and it was indeed my pleasure to teach these classes.

Toward the conclusion of my visit, I was invited to give the 41st Public Lecture to the whole university community; there were about 4,000 in the audience. My lecture was titled “Technology Convergence and the Promise of the Internet of Things (IoT): A Perspective for Developing Economies.” It’s available on YouTube. The lecture was well received, and I had some journalists interview me for the local newspapers after my talk.

My plan is to continue research collaboration with Covenant University in an area such as biometric signal processing research and Internet of Things and to facilitate faculty and student exchanges between CU and SCU.

AB: So regarding the future of engineering, particularly looking at Santa Clara and what’s happening with STEM here to bring these fields of study into closer convergence, what are your thoughts?

TO: I define engineering as applied science to solve problems. Potentially, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be applied to solve problems that each discipline may not be able to solve individually. Collaboration can be developed by pulling forces together to solve grand engineering problems that require multiple disciplines to develop solutions. I hope the STEM complex will be a catalyst to solve societal problems and ensure greater collaboration between science, technology, engineering, and math at SCU.

AB: What are some of your greatest achievements, both personally and professionally?

TO: First, I would say my best achievements are still in my future! One of the things I remember very well was that when I was still at Stanford, I was part of a group that designed the integrated circuit for SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. And that was very exciting because that was the first chip NASA was using to analyze the signals we were getting from telescopes to see whether there was intelligent life in space. We had two versions of that chip, and NASA used it for many, many years. Everything that’s happened in the past, I’m happy about it, but there’s still more to come.

AB: Thank you for your time, Tokunbo. This is inspirational for me.

TO: Thank you.

Photo: Dr. Ogunfunmi with members of NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), the student organization he advises. From left, seated: Muna Sinada, Mose Yoloye, Noah Barnes, Uche Agwu, Michael Simmons, Solomon Mulugeta; standing: Nnaoma Agwu, Hannah LeBlanc, Tokunbo Ogunfumni, Naeem Turner-Bundele, and Brandon Deadwiler.

Photo Credit: Charles Barry