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Electrical engineering program gears up for its first Ph.D. graduate

Electrical engineering program gears up for its first Ph.D. graduate

May 03
19:25 2017

Travis McCallum | Staff Writer

His deep gruff voice echoes off the white walls of the spacious classroom. He writes algebraic equations on the whiteboard in black marker with his left hand in large, perfect handwriting. Rn, Au, Ui, GM symbols litter the board as he reveals hidden solutions with ease. Students pass notes to each other, bored with the subject of “XX.”

Yet he is unfazed by their disinterest. Instead, he engages in a series of questions, allowing an awkward silence to settle in the airy room until someone piques up with a meek yes.

Mitch Grabner will be the first student to graduate from UNT’s College of Engineering Ph.D. Program in May. The program has been in the works since as early as 2004. Dr. Xinrong Li, Grabner’s advisor, said a Ph.D. program presents an immense impact.

“Ph.D.’s are one of the essential parts of the education program,” Li said. “Lacking a Ph.D. program, the system is incomplete.”

To understand the value of a Ph.D. program, Li describes the tiered levels of degrees in the system. At its foundation is a bachelor degree that is education based, usually specialized in one field. The master’s degree follows where students dig deeper in the theory behind their craft. Finally, the Ph.D. degree focuses on research with open-ended explorations leading to major breakthroughs.

Both local and national industries, like economics, rely on these breakthroughs to evolve and grow. For instance, Grabner is developing innovations in communication systems that offer high impact research outcomes for stakeholders in telecommunication or UAV technologies.

Creating a Ph.D. program has been the goal of the faculty since the bachelor’s degree was established in 2004. In 2007, the master’s program was created. Finally, enough students were eligible to study for a Ph.D. in 2014. UNT itself is pushing to fill a research university category in order to recruit more students and grow in size. All of the faculty in the engineering department have Ph.D.s.

The process for establishing a new program is tedious. First, the faculty at the Department of Electrical Engineering had to submit a proposal based off a specific template requirement created by a coordinating board, separate from UNT. The board reviews the proposal by bringing in independent members from other universities to probe and ask questions that test the commitment and resource pool of UNT. The most challenging of those questions is how the department can differentiate itself from other Ph.D. programs and contend with recruiting future students.

Once the proposal has been sufficiently solidified, it goes through a series of approvals. First, the department pitches it to the dean provost level. Then, it reaches the university level through UNT systems. And finally, the state level approves the proposal at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

The proposal is approved and UNT creates a policy to get it published in the academic catalog. Any minor revisions can be done internally, but major changes require a new proposal submission. The state also requests annual reports to ensure the program is operating properly and is up to standards.

The Department of Electrical Engineering has tackled the tough question of having a unique Ph.D. program in its collaboration with the College of Business. Part of the curriculum integrates coursework in entrepreneur and management classes, expanding STEM students to become effective communicators and earn a minor in business administration.

Still, there is the obstacle of recruitment for Ph.D. candidates. Dr. Shengli Fu, Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department, said recruitment efforts involve outreach at local college fairs and exercises with community and national leaders, such as emergency services and FEMA. There is the added difficulty of finding domestic students because the ratio to international enrollment is so big.

Making history

Mitch Grabner was born in Ontario, Canada. At age 5, he moved to Plano, Texas. His father worked for Nortell as an engineer and made math, education and problem-solving a big part of Grabner’s upbringing.

“My dad said, ‘you’ll be more successful and it will pay off more if you go to college,'” Grabner said.

In high school, he was interested in computer science and math, winning awards for his effort. At a college fair at Collin Community College, he discovered a UNT booth that would spark the beginning of his eight-year university career.

Electrical Engineer PhD Student Mitch Grabner displays his communication circuit in the office. He is the first to graduate from the department’s PhD program since it’s launch in 2015. Travis McCallum

“It seemed more fun,” he said. “It seemed like an interesting place. A place where you could learn about lots of different things. Everyone seemed so enthusiastic. It seemed like a fun place to be.”

In 2009, Grabner moved into Maple Hall. He jokes at the irony because the leaf reminds him of the Canadian flag. He studied computer engineering for the first year until a digital logic course with Professor Bittle made an impact on his future plans. His past experience had been in programming, but Grabner found the logic, which offered harder work, fun.

As someone who gets bored easily, he constantly strives for challenging work that keeps him engaged. By the end of his freshman year, Grabner switched majors to electrical engineering.

The passion for doing more with hands-on hardware fueled him to take a basic circuit analysis course, where he met Li, his dissertation professor. The class was incredibly hard and for the first time in his education career, Grabner received low marks. Never discouraged, he stayed up later and spent many all-nighters doing homework.

And it paid off.

Soon after, Li recognized that dedication and perseverance and the pair began a partnership in research.

“I remember Li was always like, ‘double check your results, make sure everything’s correct,'” Grabner said. “We didn’t really know how good it could get until we tried.”

The switch to electrical engineering changed Grabner’s hobbies too. He worked as a mechanic in the summer and designed hobby amplifiers just like his father did when he was a kid. He branched out into other programs on campus, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic.

At the end of his undergraduate career, Grabner continued to pursue challenging content in his senior problems class, so much so that his professors had to tone down his pace. Taking note of his passion for hard work, they encouraged him to apply for the master’s program if to explore the more difficult problems in electrical engineering. His decision came down to figuring out two things: how to work in the industry and how he can find the “crazy hard stuff” he wants to research about.

From those questions, Grabner began a project in communication systems using circuit analysis and Li’s guidance as a foundation in his Masters and Ph.D. research. The process would be a tiered approach compounding information with waypoints along the way. He examined cellphone wireless communication systems as parts, working to improve each area to be better, stronger and faster.

Grabner fondly remembers Li saying, “Double-check your results. Make sure everything is correct.”

Grabner loves doing research but teaches classes to kill time. He is well acquainted with all the professors in the electrical engineering department, like Guturu, who he found out worked with his father at Nortell some years ago.

Grounded in his brown loafers, Grabner moves firmly from spot to spot, standing erect, a tower of impenetrable defense with a lust for knowledge, expelling the notes he holds tightly in his right hand. He looks at the class, lifting his thick black-rimmed glasses up his perfectly linear nose, and points with an outstretched arm at each equation on the board. Grabner fosters the future engineers of tomorrow with a passion for knowledge he zaps into their souls.

“[UNT] is trying to move up into a larger research university tier and it is important to have well-developed Ph.D. programs, especially in engineering,” Grabner said. “And it was important to us to get it as fast as possible.”

Featured Image:Electrical Engineer Ph.D. Student Mitch Grabner teaches an Amplifier Small Signal Analysis class at Discovery Park. He is the first to graduate from the department’s PhD program since it’s launch in 2015. Travis McCallum

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Kayleigh Bywater

Kayleigh Bywater

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