First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Evelyn L. Hu


Full name

Evelyn L. Hu

Birth Date


What Award did you receive from IEEE?

The IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal

Place of Birth

New York, NY

Where did you grow up

New York City

Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession

My father had a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering. He worked as a Mechanical Engineer in various companies such as Rayon Consultants, American Cyanamid, and MIT. My mother: didn't complete her PhD in Economics at NYU. Both parents attended Chiao Tung University, Shanghai. My sister studied Physics at MIT and has her PhD in Astrophysics from Princeton University. She currently works at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

At times, a medical doctor, teaching physics, a writer.

What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?

I had one sibling. We were an immigrant family focused on education.

Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)

I enjoyed writing poems, essays, and also reading.

Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?

I was constrained from after-school activities until junior high school, where I traveled from the Bronx to Manhattan for school. I was then able to explore the richness of New York City. Hunter College High School did not emphasize sports, for a number of reasons. I enjoyed playing tennis when I could.

Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?

While in junior high school/high school, I was able to attend a number of NSF-sponsored activities in Physiology, Chemistry, Computer Science, and a program hosted by Rockefeller University in Biology. During college, I also attended internship programs at Columbia, NASA, and at Brookhaven. I took some after-school jobs at NASA (113th Street) and also worked for a Chemistry Professor at Barnard.

Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?

We were not able to take many vacations at all. A big event (because there were so few) was attending an expo in Montreal. Christmas was also a welcome time because of my family would invite their friends over for dining and celebration.

EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?

From grade school through graduate school, occasionally math and science were taught in an intriguing and inspiring way. But more often, while the topics were of interest, the delivery of the topics were poor. I enjoyed most those courses that contained a surprise—creative writing; Latin, because of the way the teacher animated the topic; music, because it opened the world of classical music to me; and learning about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?

Actually, in grade school, although I loved the subjects of math and science, I thought they were taught poorly and bureaucratically.

Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?

I chose to go to Barnard because it was associated with Columbia University, which was well known for its Physics program. Also, Barnard was affordable for me, since I could (and did) commute to school the first two years. I chose physics because of an interest that had developed during high school (and courses led at the Saturday Science program at Columbia, which provided my first introduction to Quantum Mechanics and to Vector Calculus). Also, Madame CS Wu was at Columbia, and I had a hope of (and eventually did) working with Madame Wu with her as a graduate advisor.

Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job

My first job was at ATT and Bell Laboratories. My current position is Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. As for my favorite job, I am fortunate that it has always turned out that my favorite job is the one I am currently engaged in.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

I don't know that I had a realistic "expectation" about a career. Early on, I thought I would get a PhD and stay in a university and teach and do research, but I had no idea what that entailed. I am lucky that I have slowly found my way to what I love doing: from pure physics to applied or engineering physics (current quantum information technologies) with more relevance and traction to real-world problems, being able to explore teaching at all levels, and working with students and helping to form centers that bring together talented people who together can dramatically improve and transform research and education.

Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?

I have always been proud to be a member of IEEE, to participate in some IEEE-sponsored events, to benefit from the wide range of documents, journals, studies, and workshops that represent the vast range of progress in engineering. IEEE means constant inquiry in applying science and engineering to important new applications; it means innovation and discovery of new, exciting areas of research and education. It's pragmatic and real-world focus means a continuing relevance and importance to society.

You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?

I am tremendously humbled and honored, because it is recognition by my colleagues. But I am also aware how fortunate I am that some of my colleagues chose to invest their time and efforts to enable me to receive this honor—and I'm aware that there are countless "award-winning stories" in the field that are as yet unrecognized, because they have not found the right people to offer them forth.

What other associations have helped you in your career?

I have always been fortunate in the colleagues that I have worked with, beginning with my very first job at Bell Labs. These colleagues have been and continue to be my mentors, educators, the people who inspire me and "have my back." I have also been fortunate in being able to engage in collaborative work throughout my career. I find such collaborations more rewarding, in giving me a larger pool of expertise to learn from, but also far more fun.

Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?

Communications and information today is generated and dispensed so quickly, I think that young professionals may feel under pressure to quickly generate and publicize their work, even if they feel they are not quite ready to do so. It's easy for me to say, but harder to know how to adhere to this advice: take time to find the resources, collaborators, and engineering challenges that really speak to you; the collaborators that you trust. Try to hold your compass steady for the long journey. This doesn't mean to never deviate, nor take the safe pathways when it's important to, but to look for the long-vision, longer-term goals.

Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?

Perhaps taken more risks scientifically. I think many of us have some inner sense of our limitations, which may not be accurate, and may not be limitations that our colleagues see. Those inner limitations are among the hardest to dispel.

Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?

Perhaps several of my projects, in the wish to fully understand the fundamentals (materials, detailed structure), while at the same time realizing the importance of publishing on the application behavior. Believing that the metric of performance that most of the community quotes and cites is at heart, not the real limitation to performance, and going forth with approaches that incorporate that philosophy.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

Hard to pick out a single achievement with respect to a technological or scientific discovery. Perhaps an achievement that I am proud of is my commitment to setting up collaborative opportunities for my colleagues and myself: inheriting the leadership of a Science and Technology Center and supporting numerous education programs, as well as making possible cross-disciplinary collaborations; and also being part of the original National Nanotechnology Users Network, giving the opportunity for my university to test out the environment of a user facility that today we find is ever more important. Helping to formulate a California Institute for Science and Innovation, the California NanoSystems Institute (between UCSB and UCLA) that provides lasting resources for education programs, a building to house new labs and programs. And most recently, helping to form the Harvard Quantum Initiative.

Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?

Read, run, do word puzzles of every kind. In earlier days, travel and study languages.

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

Keeping up friendships, some of which go back to high school, to college, to my first work environments.

Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?

I love dumplings. My mother did not enjoy cooking, nor was she a good cook. But she did teach me to make wontons, a food I like, and one of the few family dining legacies.

Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?

I generally love all music and go through periods of favorite songs when I play them over and over. I am a very poor player, but still hope to have time to better learn piano and violin.

Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.

Ah, this is an interesting question. There are some books that I love, that I have kept from childhood, although they are paperbacks and yellowed and falling apart. I have umpteen photograph albums, started systematically when I was in graduate school.

What are three things people may not know about you?

1. I love dancing and being completely silly; 2. I love interacting with little kids—that's where I can exercise my full Item 1, with no fear of disapproval; and 3. I have done (walking) marathons and a sprint triathalon.

Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)

I've had many mentors through time. When I was young, my father always had interesting math problems or stories about Chinese characters and sayings. In high school, a Latin teacher taught me that you could love learning and make any subject come alive and still be a genuine human being. In my first job, my mentors were my colleagues, who completely taught me everything about a new field: the approach, the instrumentation, the measurements, the right conferences and journals, the ways of building vision and success ... and were also my good friends, with whom I skied and hiked. And similarly today, those from whom I learn and share life with.

What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?

I guess it would be my computer, with excellent internet connections, and my smart phone.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself?

I've probably said enough!