Revolutions come and go, but the basics endure
After receiving one of the highest honors in his field, Douglas Frey, professor of electrical and computer engineering, reflected on the enduring importance of engineering fundamentals and the role that music played in his selection of a career.
Frey, recently elected a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), earned three electrical engineering degrees from Lehigh - the B.S. in 1973, the M.S. in 1974 and the Ph.D. in 1977 - and joined the faculty in 1977.
His fascination with music was already developing by the time he enrolled as a freshman. Playing drums in a rock and roll band with his brothers, performing at fraternities and at night clubs, he began mixing sounds and experimenting with amplifiers, and he discovered a talent for electronic design.
His first roommate at Lehigh also inspired him, if unwittingly.
"My first roommate was building an oscilloscope. I was clueless. This was my first exposure to the college world. I didn't know what an oscilloscope was. I watched my roommate and I thought about what he was doing. I realized I didn't want to build an oscilloscope. I want to design an oscilloscope - or whatever it would be. I wanted to go beyond putting something together - I wanted to be the person creating it.
"I had always liked math," says Frey, "and as an undergraduate I found I loved electrical engineering. I graduated early, in three years, so I could start on my master's degree and find out what electronics was all about."
Frey received his first patent for a voltage-controlled amplifier, then delved into the growing field of integrated-circuit and microchip design. Working often as a consultant for industry, he earned more patents for specific ways of arranging transistors on silicon substrates.
"With integrated-circuit chips," says Frey, "the geometry - where you place the transistors on the silicon - is almost as important as the circuits themselves. Transistors can heat up, and these thermal gradients can cause errors in the circuitry."
Frey, who now holds more than a dozen patents, was commended by IEEE for "contributions to theory and design of linear and nonlinear circuits and systems." He is often cited by engineering students as one of their favorite professors.
"I like theory, and I also like making things work," he says. "But I especially like the students. That's the best part of being at Lehigh."
Frey's consulting eventually coincided with his teaching. In the 1990s, one former student put him in touch with another - Jeff Scott '84, one of the three co-founders of Silicon Labs. Frey has consulted with Precision Monolithics and Analog Devices and now works with Silicon Labs. He has even served as an expert witness in a patent-infringement case involving digital synthesizers.
In three decades as a teacher, researcher and consultant, Frey has seen revolutions come and go in electrical engineering. One of his biggest missions as a teacher, he says, is to show students the lasting importance of the fundamentals.
"I've seen a lot of different initiatives in the past 30 years," he says. "New ideas and new trends get hot and then fade. But one thing hasn't changed. The basics are just as important as they ever were. You can't play ball in electrical engineering without them.
"The digital revolution has been significant, but it has tended to make students want to take courses only in digital design and computers, as opposed to analog design and circuitry.
"Over the years, though, it's interesting to see how people who can do analog design are often the most sought-after engineers.
"You can really distinguish yourself as a good engineer if you have a good understanding of the fundamentals of design."
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005