First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:James J. Coleman


Full name

James J. Coleman

Birth Date


What Award did you receive from IEEE?

IEEE Jun-ichi Nishizawa Medal

Place of Birth


Where did you grow up

The Garfield Ridge neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago

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

My father was a craftsman who made wood patterns for metal castings. My mother was a homemaker. I had three older sisters and three younger brothers.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

I wanted to learn how radios and televisions worked. Later that morphed into wanting to be an engineer.

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

We didn’t have much but we were well cared for. The girls were all older and grew up and left the house before I was in high school. We boys had lots of neighbor kids to play with, so we were out in the neighborhood as much as possible.

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

We built model cars, and slot cars were popular at that time. Lots of baseball and touch football. I was always a reader, and my mother took us to the library often. I eventually turned my interest in radios to Amateur Radio.

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

I was in the band – functional but not talented. I played a lot of sports - softball, volleyball, weightlifting and football.

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

I mowed lawns and delivered newspapers at first. In high school I worked part time at a pharmacy. I had summer jobs in factories mostly loading trucks. In college I worked part-time washing dishes in the cafeteria.

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

Not many vacations. A few times we rented a cabin on one of the lakes in northern Illinois and did some swimming and fishing. Later, we had a family road trip or two to visit my sister in Kansas.

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

In K-12 it was math, because it was easy. At university I liked almost everything.

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

In K-12 I didn’t really care for languages – English or foreign. At university, I took sociology and economics electives, and I didn’t care for the more basic classes, but the upper-level electives were okay.

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

I chose the University of Illinois because it had a good engineering program and was close, to home, but not too close. I majored in electrical engineering and finally learned how radios and TVs worked.

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

My first job was at Bell Labs in Murrray Hill. That was a fantastic experience. My favorite job was the 31 years I spent as a professor in ECE at the University of Illinois. I retired from Illinois and I took a job at the University of Texas in Arlington. It’s a young and growing place and I’m having great fun working with new friends.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

I always thought I would end up at a university after an industry career. I returned to Illinois as a faculty member after seven years in industry – earlier than expected. I probably hoped for, rather than expected, the wonderful successes I’ve had with my students and colleagues. The reality has greatly exceeded my expectations.

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

Since my undergrad days, I have always thought of the IEEE as an integral part of my career. Every aspect of the IEEE – publications, conferences, governance, networking, even awards – has positively affected my career.

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

When I consider the previous recipients of this and other IEEE medals, I feel honored, fortunate, and humbled to be in their company. And I’m grateful for the long list of brilliant people who have played major roles in the work we’ve been able to do.

What other associations have helped you in your career?

Interestingly, my area (photonics) has significant overlap with a number of professional societies, including the IEEE, the Optical Society, (OSA), SPIE and the American Physical Society. All bring somewhat different perspectives that contribute to the greater whole.

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

That’s easy. The brightest and most successful people want to know everything about everything. There is no danger of your brain exploding if you put more into it. Keep asking questions and keep learning. Anything new you learn about anything improves everything you do.

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

I would have taken better care of my joints and bones. Maybe chosen the violin instead of football…

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?

Not a single project really. My passion was for semiconductor lasers. Studying them hit all the right buttons – semiconductor materials and devices, lightwaves and electromagnetics, solid state physics and quantum mechanics.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

I am proud that my students and I made a critical and lasting contribution to a technology that is now pervasively embedded in the infrastructure of modern data communications networks.

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

I’m a serial hobbyist – guitars, photography, amateur radio, welding, reading, motorcycles, Corvettes, Raspberry Pi, drones, radio-controlled cars – probably forgot a few. We travel a lot, often to visit family all over the US and UK.

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

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


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

I like almost all music, but folk rock is probably the first choice.

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

I have a beautiful silver pocket watch, with gold inlay, more than 90 years old that originally belonged to my uncle.

What are three things people may not know about you?

I’ve communicated with every country in the world via amateur radio and all but one them using Morse Code. I was in jail more than 20 times (one summer – as a tutor). I knew the man who made Amelia Earhart’s radios and occasionally give talks on her last flight and his role in it.

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

My father was a great role model. Many colleagues, teachers and friends – far too many to list here, but I wish I could.

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

The usual – computer, coffee, comfortable chair.