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A chance encounter

1 Jun

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Looking back, an odd series of unrelated events led Robi Polikar to Iowa State for graduate studies.

Robi grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. He really thought he’d choose an American grad school near Washington, D.C., an area he knew from his time as a foreign exchange student in Pennsylvania during high school. But he decided he would visit just one university outside the area, and that school – randomly selected – was Iowa State.

Robi took a bus from Washington, D.C., during his winter break. He arrived in Ames on an unusually warm day in February. He met one faculty member – Mary Helen Greer, then chair of the biomedical engineering program – who made him feel so welcome that he never considered another school.

After his parents spent their entire savings on Robi’s first semester, Iowa State offered him an assistantship that lowered his tuition, plus a job washing pots and pans in Linden Hall.

“Dr. Greer knew I needed [the money],” Robi says. “I might not have been able to continue otherwise.”

He spent a total of seven years at Iowa State, earning both a master’s and PhD in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering.

“There are few people I can list who have had a major impact, who made me what I am today,” Robi says. “Mary Helen Greer is at the top of the list, along with my parents.”

Robi’s career has soared: He is a professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. He recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for faculty early career development. He’s an active researcher and administrator but continues to teach upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in wavelet theory, pattern recognition, neural networks, signal processing, bioinformatics, and biomedical systems.

In his office in Rowan Hall, Robi proudly displays two awards from Iowa State: Excellence in Teaching (2000) and Professional Progress in Engineering (2012).

He says he still misses the wide-open spaces of Iowa.

“I truly enjoyed the time I spent there,” he says. “I’ve been to a lot of college campuses, and Iowa State is one of the most beautiful – if not THE most beautiful – campuses I’ve ever seen.”

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A huge need

5 Jun

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The first thing you notice about Bing Howell is his smile. The second thing is how extremely articulate he is. So it’s no surprise that at 32 years old he’s had a crazy-fast career trajectory.

This is a guy on the move. As a kid, he lived in Sacramento, Calif.; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Omaha, Neb., before moving to Rhode Island to finish high school. His parents are from Trinidad and Panama, and Bing said he grew up knowing he wanted to travel.

He came to Iowa State for two reasons: The university was good at Div. I men’s basketball and international business. (“Everything else was secondary,” he says.)

The basketball part didn’t quite pan out.

“[Coach Larry] Eustachy said I could walk on [to the team],” he explains. “I tried out, but I didn’t get past day two.”

The academic part was a lot more successful.

Bing earned a bachelor’s degree in management information systems and international business, with additional study in transportation and logistics.

Following graduation, Bing went to work for the investment banking firm Merrill Lynch in New York.

“It was engaging and exciting for the first two months when there was leadership development training and onboarding,” he said. “It was exciting and engaging for the next two months after that when my project was new. But I have a tendency to learn things really, really quickly, so after the first four months on the job it became redundant. I felt a bit lacking in purpose.

“So then my sister coached me. She said, ‘You need to be doing something you enjoy each day.’”

And then he found his passion: education.

He spent time in New York as an intern with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a minority internship placement program that focuses on bringing minorities to Wall Street firms, corporations, investment banks, and law firms.

“Merrill Lynch had an award-winning financial literacy program that taught kids financial principles from kindergarten through high school. I put together a financial literacy program for a couple hundred low-income middle school kids in New York. On kickoff day in the summer of 2004 we had 15 volunteers that were engaging with 200 kids over the course of a four-hour financial literacy day. The kids were all ecstatic that someone was there sharing their time, and they were ecstatic about the material – they’d just never been exposed to it. And so by the end of that four-hour window I was actually more alive professionally in something I was spending less than 10 hours per week on than the 80-90 hours I spent on my job. A couple months after that I stopped doing my job and I’ve been working in education in some capacity ever since.”

Bing moved to New Jersey to work for the state’s Department of Education. He’s worn several different hats, including human resources director for 22 of Camden’s 26 schools and manager of the Office of Portfolio Management.

“Camden is the poorest city in the country,” Bing said. “It’s the second most dangerous city in the country, and it has the absolute 22 worst-performing schools in the state. It’s not just bad – it’s abysmal. It’s a lot of concentration of bad stuff happening in the same place.”

Bing says he chose Camden “largely because there was a huge need.” In 2011 he joined the Broad Residency – a leadership development program that places participants into high-level managerial positions in school districts and departments of education.

“Camden is where I actively chose to spend most of my time while going through the residency program,” he said. “Camden had a concentration of the worst schools – that’s where the need is; that’s the best place to implement new strategies.”

Beautiful music

31 May

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Professional musician Maureen Hurd Hause has had a frantic morning. She’s had to get her two daughters, Elena, 7, and Nora, 2, ready for their day. Then she’s driven from her home in West Orange, N.J., to meet Jim and me at Carnegie Deli in Midtown Manhattan. When she dashes in, she’s out of breath and smiling.

Maureen is always smiling.

The 1994 music grad has one of the sunniest dispositions I’ve ever encountered. After a cup of coffee and a quick chat, we head out onto the street where Jim takes pictures of Maureen playing her clarinet on the corner of 7th Avenue and 57th Street, with New Yorkers, tourists, and taxi drivers all around. With Jim at her feet, Maureen throws back her head and joyfully plays Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie.

Now everyone is smiling.

Maureen grew up in tiny Ida Grove, Iowa. She began taking private clarinet lessons with ISU music professor Joseph Messenger during her freshman year of high school.

“It was 100 miles each way for three years,” Maureen remembers.

At Iowa State, Maureen was a member of the orchestra and wind ensemble and continued to study with Messenger.

“I had wonderful, amazing teachers in the Music Department,” she says.

She followed up her Iowa State degree with three graduate degrees from the Yale University School of Music. Today Maureen teaches clarinet in the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and she’s also a freelance musician in the New York City area.

The New York Times called one of Maureen’s performances at Carnegie Hall (not coincidentally right across the street from our meeting place at Carnegie Deli) “striking” and “vibrantly played.” She has performed with the American Symphony Orchestra, New York City Opera Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society.

She’s a classical clarinetist but loves Benny Goodman, and she’s recorded a number of CDs, including a solo CD.

“I tried to record things that hadn’t been recorded before,” she said, adding that some of the numbers were composed by her husband, Evan Hause.

As if playing on the streets of New York were not enough, Maureen happily agreed to play for us in Central Park, and, again, we drew a happy crowd.

New York and beyond

21 May

Jim and I managed to miss the Midwestern snowstorm in early May by traveling to New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, where we couldn’t have asked for nicer weather: It was warm, sunny, and bursting with spring color.

We also couldn’t have asked for nicer alumni. Everywhere we went, Iowa Staters went out of their way to make us feel at home in the Northeast.

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We flew into the Newark Liberty International Airport and rented a car. Our first two New Jersey alumni meetings were very near Philadelphia, so we stayed in Philly our first two nights and took advantage of all that city has to offer: historic architecture, parks and squares, and great food. We visited the Liberty Bell out of a sense of obligation but really preferred the Mural Arts Program (all over the city) and the creepy coolness of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

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We met our first alum on Day 2: Bing Howell. Bing (’03 MIS & international business) works for the New Jersey Department of Education in Camden, making a difference in one of the most challenging school districts in the country. I’ll tell you more about Bing (and some of the other alumni we met) in the coming weeks.

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Next we met Robi Polikar at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. Robi (MS ’95 electrical engr/biomedical engr; PhD ’00) was born in Istanbul and is currently a professor and department chair for the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. After meeting with Robi, I felt really proud to live in Ames – he said such nice things about his experience in Iowa and at Iowa State University.

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We left New Jersey behind us and headed next to the town of Poughquag, N.Y. Never heard of Poughquag? You can find it on the map near Poughkeepsie in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. Poughquag is home to Robert Antol (’78 mathematics), who has a crazy-cool space observatory built onto his home. Bob and his wife, Barb, not only let us play with his telescope but they also fed us New York-style pizza on their back patio. What a great day! (I love this photo Jim took of Bob and me in his observatory with the alien!)

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We set out for the state of Connecticut next, to meet with Ruth Fitzgerald (’71 history, MS ’74 urban & regional planning) in Hartford. Ruth is the founding principal of Fitzgerald & Halliday, a planning and environmental analysis firm that specializes in transportation and community planning projects. That’s Ruth above, working with her IT specialist, Howard Latimer.

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Just down the road in Wallingford, Conn., we met Ben Hahn (’98 electrical engineering), vice president of Sensor Switch. Ben took us on a fascinating tour of his firm, which manufactures occupancy sensors and network lighting control systems that provide energy savings. We probably embarrassed Ben with all the crazy things Jim had him do for photos (sorry, Ben!), but it was a really fun tour.

IMG_6351After our meeting with Ben, we spent the night in New Haven, home of Yale University. Jim and I both love to see other college campuses, so walking on Yale’s Old Campus and the New Haven Green was a real treat. We also ate some of the famous New Haven-style pizza.

The next day, we did what every red-blooded Iowan fears the most: We drove through New York City. Actually, not so much “through” as “around” the city, en route to the Newark airport to drop off our rental car. But still, we did drive in the Bronx and I was pretty nervous that we’d take a wrong turn and end up totally lost and have to pay for an extra day on our car and miss our connection with the car service that was scheduled to pick us up. I was worried for nothing, because we sailed through with only one teensie wrong turn, which the GPS fixed for us very quickly. We actually turned in our rental car almost an hour early.

The car service (which, I cannot stress enough, is such a better option than a taxi) picked us up and delivered us directly to our inn in Brooklyn that we had booked for the next few nights. From then on, we relied on public transportation and the kindness of ISU alumni to get us around the city. Oh, and lots of walking.

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I almost feel like this was “Part II” of this trip, because when we got into Brooklyn, everything changed. And not just because we were without a car. There’s just such a different vibe in the city. Brooklyn was a great (and considerably less expensive) place to stay – and it was easy to jump into the subway and get to Manhattan in less than 20 minutes. We were lucky to be in New York when we were: The trees were all in bloom, the weather was beautiful, and New Yorkers were just grooving on it everywhere we went.

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Our first meeting in New York City was with Rachel (Hollrah) Beardsley (’02 Spanish/political science) and her husband, Peter. The couple lives in lower Manhattan and can tell you lots of stories about surviving the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Rachel and Peter met as students at Brooklyn Law School and both are practicing attorneys. To say they were good sports about the photo shoot is putting it mildly; we had Rachel change clothes three times! She went running for us in Central Park; they took us sailing on Long Island Sound; she posed with the Statue of Liberty – and also with her cat. Most grueling photo shoot ever!

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The next morning, alumnus Trent Preszler  (’98 interdisciplinary studies) picked us up in his Chevy Volt and – after grabbing lattes and egg sandwiches and taking a quick peek at his Brooklyn apartment – took us with him on his 80-mile commute out to the north fork of Long Island. What a fascinating drive – from the city to the countryside to the New England-styled towns and wineries. Trent is CEO of Bedell Cellars winery and vineyards in Cutchogue – located in the prettiest setting you can imagine. Jim photographed Trent out in the vineyards and in the sophisticated tasting room, above.

Bedell Cellars wine had already made quite a name for itself through awards for its wines and its tasting room, but the winery’s most recent claim to fame happened just this year when its 2009 Merlot was chosen to be served at President Obama’s inauguration luncheon. Trent gave us a wonderful tour of not only the winery and vineyard but of the North Fork itself.

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The next morning we met Maureen Hurd Hause (’94 music) in Midtown Manhattan. Maureen is actually a New Jersey alum who teaches clarinet at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, but she often plays as a professional musician at Carnegie Hall, so our idea was to meet her there. The fact that the lower fourth of Carnegie Hall was covered in scaffolding didn’t deter Jim from photographing Maureen on the street corner in front of the building. We drew quite a crowd! Maureen was belting out Gershwin tunes, Jim was lying on the ground, and more than a few people photographed the goings-on with their iPhones.

And then our New York adventure came to an end, but not before having a picnic in Central Park.

Next up: North and South Dakota!