V John Mathews began his path to becoming head of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State as early as grade school. That’s when he first became interested in electronics, although he cannot remember where the idea came from.
“All I know is, I wanted to be an electronics engineer,” Mathews said. “I knew that a very long time ago and I never changed my mind.”
Mathews was raised in a village in the southernmost part of India. When he was in fourth grade, his father brought home the first radio in his neighborhood.
“That was pretty exciting, so maybe that’s where it started,” Mathews said.
Radio was not far off the mark in terms of a potential career path. Mathews has spent the last 35 years researching signal processing. Some of his early theoretical work on adaptive filters has applications to cell phone transmissions in situations where receivers have to adapt to signals that are bouncing off buildings, mountains and trees, and which change as people move.
The foundation of his career began as an undergraduate at the Regional Engineering College in Tiruchirappalli, India, a school that attracted diverse students. Despite their differences in culture and language, his class of 200 formed a tight-knit group of students who learned from each other. He is still in touch with his classmates today.
It was as an undergraduate there that Mathews learned the importance of having broad interests. “Although it’s important to be very accomplished in your specific area, it’s also important to be interdisciplinary,” he said.
Mathews came to the United States in 1980 for a four-year stint as a teaching and research fellow at the University of Iowa. He moved on to teach at the University of Utah, where he eventually became the chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department. Entrenched in his career at University of Utah, he came to believe that he would be a one-university professor, but when the head position at Oregon State was brought to his attention, he found himself open to the possibilities it offered.
“Something struck a chord with me,” he said.
The collaborative culture at Oregon State was one of the things that attracted Mathews, and it is something that he plans to promote and support in his new role as school head.
“You can do so much more when you work with other people,” he said. “It’s something we are already good at here at Oregon State, but we can be even better.”
Moving to Oregon meant he was also moving closer to his two daughters. Kiran is a bioengineer in San Diego and Ella is a computer scientist in Seattle.
“We are a family of engineers, as my wife Suja is a mechanical engineer,” he explained. “You can imagine what our dinner conversations are like!”
And, finally, Mathews appreciates Oregon State’s outstanding faculty and the close ties it has to industry, because it offers great possibilities for doing impactful research. His recent studies have direct applications in a wide range of areas. One study is advancing methods of translating brain waves into electrical pulses to help amputees have better control of their prosthetic devices. Another study is developing a system to improve airplane safety by analyzing signals from sensors located on the body of an airplane to detect structural flaws. His research may even make rock concerts sound better by helping to reduce distortion in speakers.
“We can work on basically any problem we want to, because any application has signals,” he said.
Mathews has served in several leadership and editorial positions with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and has received numerous awards through the organization. He also received the 2008–09 Distinguished Alumni Award from the National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirappalli, India.