Homecoming For Pratt School’s New Electrical And Computer Engineering Head

DURHAM, NC -- When April Brown was a high school student in nearby Hillsborough, she thought about becoming a psychologist.

It was her father, an electrical engineer who got his Ph.D. at Duke and spent most of his career at Research Triangle Institute, who encouraged her to first try engineering.

"He had a perspective that engineering is a wonderful broad degree that could lead to many other types of careers," recalled Brown, who quickly discovered she was an engineering natural.

Today, Brown is not only became an electrical engineer like her dad, but she is back home again as head of the Pratt School of Engineering's electrical and computer engineering department.

Brown left a leadership position at Georgia Tech to join Duke's faculty this summer. A month after her Duke arrival, Brown sat in an office where classical music softened muffled construction noises emanating from the Pratt School's new engineering building site to talk about the department's major expansion, the installation of three large molecular beam epitaxy machines for her own microelectronics and photonics research, and how she manages to supervise the work of graduate students in both Atlanta and Durham.

"The thing I most love about this job now is that I can do research and teaching and help serve the university," she said. She also has found time to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee (see http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/news/newsrelease.asp?p=all&id=636&catid=2), at which time she urged lawmakers to help encourage more women to become engineers and scientists.

In an interview, Brown recalled her own gender challenges at N.C. State University, where she received a bachelor's degree in 1981. "When I would look around, I might see one other woman, or none, in my classes," she recalled.

After finishing N.C. State and getting a Ph.D. from Cornell, she took a job as a University of Michigan assistant electrical engineering professor, but quickly realized "I was simply just not ready."

"What I love now about being a faculty member is the breadth of my activities, and the time management required. In order to do all these things well, you need a level of maturity and self-confidence."

So Brown went to Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., for three years, spent the next year at the U.S. Army Research Office in Research Triangle Park, then returned to Hughes for an additional four years.

She progressed at Hughes from section head to project manager to senior scientist, experience that got her to Georgia Tech in 1994 as an associate professor.

She became a full professor by 1999, supervising research and teaching students about the use of molecular beam epitaxy. That technique directs beams of atoms or molecules through a vacuum chamber to build up layers of crystalline materials. Those materials are used in both light and electrons for advanced sensor and communications applications, which is her research focus

Moving beyond the lab and classroom, Brown also became associate dean of the College of Engineering in 1999. Then, in 2001, she was then tapped to be the executive assistant to Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough.

A big reason she moved to Duke, she said, is her desire to remain simultaneously an administrator, researcher and teacher.

"At Georgia Tech, at least in my field, you end up having to make a choice at some point," she explained.

What also attracted her was Pratt's faculty, and Dean Kristina Johnson. "There's an incredible amount of justifiable excitement about the growth that's going on, and the new building," she said.

Brown is now planning to add about 10 new faculty to electrical and computer engineering in the next five years. She also wants to communicate to potential engineering graduate and undergraduate students "what makes Duke such a great place to be right now," she said.

One major draw for students is the school's manageable size. Another is "the connection to biology and photonics."

Brown said she has always been drawn to teaching "because what I enjoy in life is learning. And I think you learn best in an environment with students and with other people who are learning, too."

One learning experience she hopes to find more time for is horseback riding. Her new home in Chapel Hill is near a riding stable. "In my mind, I'm going over there and trying to take some lessons," she vowed.

Her equestrian interests also figured into a gag departing gift she received from Georgia Tech's provost. It is a small statue of a yellow jacket, the institute's mascot, mounted on a horse.

The cut glass insect appears to be holding the crystalline head -- of a blue devil.