Q&A | Anthony Ambler, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at USC

Anthony Ambler, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at USC

A native of the United Kingdom, Dr. Anthony Ambler is the dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina.

Ambler has earned his undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Previously to coming to USC, Ambler was the chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Q: How did you become interested in computer engineering?

I studied electronics as an undergraduate in the 1970’s. Computers were still wonderful machines. We had entire buildings that were given over to housing large superfast (by the standards of that day) computers… So getting access to use one was quite special, and that piqued my interest…. Because they were essentially new and amazing.

Q: How can computer engineering influence other areas of business to become more competitive and innovative?

Everyone and everything uses computers. Don’t forget your smartphone is also a computer and more powerful than many computers I had access to as a student. Computers are useful for warehouse inventory checking, banking, communications, design of cars, aircraft, medical diagnosis, control of lifesaving medical devices and everything. EVERYTHING now uses and depends on computers. Computers are also able to process and analyze vast quantities of data and yield useful information – for example dna sequencing from a crime scene and comparing to nationwide databases to discover who did it, pattern recognition of a car license plate as it drives by and looking to see if it’s been stolen. The list is endless and I will have left out an enormous list of applications.

Q: What opportunities and challenges are ahead in engineering education?

Getting the right level of background knowledge covered in schools so that students are prepared to go on to study engineering and sciences at college level – and also done in such a way that it seems interesting! The other thing is to make sure that students are made aware of the incredibly exciting opportunities in engineering and computer science and how it can, on the one hand, be used to create space rockets, aircraft, all the way through to finding ways to improve the quality of life in poorer parts of the world.

Q: What type of research is taking place at the USC College of Engineering and Computing?

How much time do I have? The research in our college is very wide ranging and will cover aerospace (we are working in developing new materials for aerospace applications, and working on how better to apply the use of composites in aircraft construction, eg. Boeing Dreamliner, looking at how composites react to lightning strikes! – how to detect defects in construction etc – how to predict failure in mechanical structures so that the aircraft can be repaired before any accident). Energy – we have a very diverse energy research program looking at nuclear energy, design of fuel cells, how to clean up power station emissions, power control. Biomedical Engineering – automated patient monitoring, medical imaging systems, artificial organs, CAT/MRI scans, cellular/tissue and genetic engineering, artificial organs. Wireless technologies, conformal antennas, microelectronic device design. Software engineering, cyber security, robotics. Environmental impact studies, flood prevention. Go to www.cec.sc.edu and search around. I guarantee you will be excited and find something of interest. Come down and see us.

Q: What is the impact of these researches in the community? Do they have any national or international impact?

I would say that everything we do in this college has a direct impact locally, nationally, and worldwide.  We work with Savannah River Nuclear Labs, Boeing, SPAWAR…the list is endless, and that’s just in South Carolina. Our students are employed nationwide because of the grounding they get in their studies from the research we do. So… Our research has direct impact (and is recognized world-wide – only this week we had a team from Switzerland come explicitly to see some of our work. I have also hosted visits from The Netherlands, the UK, Oman, to name just a few). Without exception our research has direct applicability to industry and commerce. Our latest accomplishment is to receive official recognition of our cyber security work by the NSA and by Homeland Security – we are working with State agencies to see how better we can protect the state from cyber attack.

Q: How does the university bring research close to industries that need competitive costs and quick production ensuring longer time to pay back investments made considering the fast obsolescence of technology?

It is true that technology is advancing at an incredible pace… So it will never get boring. So we need to be doing research so that we keep up to date and keep changing our courses so that our graduates are employable!!! We make a big point of working with economic development agencies in the state to make sure that companies know who we are, what we are doing, and that we are here to help where we can. We are increasingly creating new education programs for companies to send employees to keep them up to date with relevant technologies. That also helps to publicize our research and garner industry interest.

Q: What is your particular research interest?

Ummm…. Well you did ask… My research interest is in how to effectively (quickly, cheaply) test electronic components, boards and systems to make sure there are no design or manufacturing defects in them before they get passed on to the customer. Very complex problem that isn’t totally solvable at this time given the increasingly complex things we have to test. To put it in context, even a relatively small circuit designed by a student would take longer than the current age of the universe to test if it was to be done exhaustively. Gets Interesting.

Q: Why did you decide to move from the United Kingdom to the United States? What drove you to USC?

I was organizing a conference in Austin, Texas, from London. I asked the chairman of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at UT Austin to be the after dinner speaker. We knew each other quite well. After his speech he asked me how things were in the UK, then invited me for coffee the next day, and offered me a job there. I flew back home and asked my wife what she would like us to do – her immediate answer was ‘let’s go to Austin’. I was there for almost 15 years, then started to look for the next opportunity and this one at USC came up. I liked what I saw in the faculty and their research work… And was offered the job. So here I am.

Q: Do you have plans to come back to the UK one day?

Other than to visit, no plans to return to the UK. My eldest daughter has graduated from UT Austin in Biomedical Engineering and is now studying law, and has got married to a Texan. Her twin brother is at West Point about to graduate in nuclear engineering, and will marry a Texan shortly. Our youngest daughter was born in the US… So basically we are settled here!

Q: (Off-topic) Manchester City or Manchester United?

No obvious answer to this one – in my 11 years at Manchester I never went to see Manchester United, but I was coerced in to seeing Manchester City playing once. I guess I’m not that interested in ‘football’ as it should be correctly called. I used to paly rugby at school, and it’s great fun to watch, but my real interest is is the technology associated with Formula 1 Grand Prix racing!!!