Q&A: Miguel Velez-Reyes, Ph.D. Chair and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
October 12, 2012
Q&A: Miguel Velez-Reyes, Ph.D.
What attracted you to the position of Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering?
I was in the process of re-examining my career, trying to see where I wanted to go. I began to consider different alternatives and options. After 20 years of being a faculty member, I began considering a position as department chair and looking for administrative-leadership positions where I could explore other aspects of my academic career and help others build their career. I have worked as a project leader and center director for many years and figured it's a natural transition from these positions to this challenge.
Why El Paso?
I became attracted to El Paso for many reasons. At my old institution, the University of Puerto Rico of Mayaguez, I knew of many people who have had collaborations with faculty here at UTEP, particularly in Computer Science with Ann Gates, and Nadia Santiago who was in my department. Nadia has been a very close collaborator and has several collaborations with UTEP. El Paso intrigued me.
When I started to seriously consider this application, I learned the mission and vision of this institution and what it strives to become. I felt very compelled by the vision of the University - of the notion that accessibility and excellence in research can go hand-in-hand. It was something I could personally relate to. I am a first generation university graduate and I decided to go all the way to my Ph.D. I found it to be a very important notion that this school has an impact on its region and the people it serves. As a state university it is very important to serve its state and its constituents. As a University, it is important for us to be able to empower our community – to give back.
Where do you see the department going under your leadership, what are some of the big plans you have for the department?
It's still early and I'm learning about our strengths. My observation is the undergraduate program is strong. We have to build on this strength to gain recognition for our research. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has the talent to be recognized as a leader in research, education and service to the community. My role is to facilitate and enable multidisciplinary initiatives involving professors in our department. Right now Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty are doing very interesting work – some of this work can be expanded into larger initiatives with other like-minded participants. Larger initiatives will bring more recognition to our department and consequently more graduate students. In five years I believe these initiatives will result in a stronger graduate program that is as well recognized as our undergraduate program.
Having a strong graduate program is a priority for you?
My priority is at graduate level and research without diminishing our excellent undergraduate program. We will continue to support the undergraduate experience - providing resources for learning, helping transition students from high school to college, then giving them the academic support that prepares them for engineering careers. All of this is a foundation for research and building a pipeline of highly motivated graduate students.
What is your research background, your areas of interest?
My background is primarily statistical signal processing and model based processing. I have been involved in research dealing with minimal or non-intrusive monitoring dynamic systems. In that regard, because of the type of mathematical foundation, I have been able to work in different application domains. I sometimes summarize my philosophy by saying 'diverse problems similar solutions'. What that means is that there are many problems within the area of signal processing. When you look at cross-differencing application domains and that of mathematical structure of basic algorithms that we use to tackle some of these problems, you can see there is a lot of commonality across them. There is a lot of synergy we can explore in developing what we would call information extraction algorithms (data processing algorithm) from the signals that we measure. We use statistical or physical modules to be able to build the algorithms that are used to extract different types of signals. So with this in mind, my work at MIT and some of my early work at the University of Puerto Rico, was in monitoring machines, electric equipment, sensor less control induction machine, minimal remote sensing systems, and protection applications such as circuit breakers and semi conductor devices. Later on I became interested in remote sensing, specifically imaging spectroscopy a particular sensing modality. In doing this research we are looking at the use of imaging spectroscopy also called hyper-spectral imaging. Objects that can emit emission signals to reflection signatures- information that can be used in the same way a chemist infers the properties of the materials by looking at its spectral (light) or emission (heat) signature. Using this imaging spectroscopy can be seen as a very sophisticated camera system. This has many applications across many domains. By using different wavelength, and looking at the emission of heat or objects we can understand the properties of ground materials we are trying to measure.
What about outside of your work?
I have two sons. I like to hang out with them and take them to their games. My youngest son is a junior in high school and is very serious about soccer, though he isn't sure what he wants to study. The oldest is a senior in high school. He tells me he wants to go into something that combines business, economics, and engineering. He is very interested in economics and business and is still defining which technical field to go into. My wife is a "stay-at-home" mom but before that she studied Electrical Engineering. When our kids where born she wanted to stay home. That takes a lot of dedication and hard work, especially because in today's society people ask why she gave up her career in engineering to be a stay at home mom. But when I see our kids I can see the influence she has made. I may show my success through my papers but she shows her success through our children.
And for fun?
I used to play the Puetro Rican Cuatro. It is an instrument that is played more in folk music. However in later years musicians have used it to incorporate it in other genres of music, like jazz and symphonies and in doing so they have also introduced it to the younger generation. I like to read humor books for relaxing, though the recent book I read was Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I like sports, back in Puerto Rico the main sport is baseball and only recently has soccer become popular. I enjoy watching my sons playing soccer. As a family we enjoy traveling to different places that allow us to be outdoors and around nature. My favorite place is Sequoia National Park it was a very unique experience for me to see nature out of scale - everything is very large. We have been also been to Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.
What is it that you miss most about Puerto Rico?
I do miss the coast. Though I do like the sun here in El Paso. I don't miss having it rain everyday at 2 pm and worrying about hurricanes. I am still waiting to see a sand storm though. I like seeing the open sky with no clouds and the open landscape.