A Q&A with Rhonda Franklin – connecting diverse students

Franklin believes the best research results are achieved from a diversity of backgrounds, something she learned as a graduate student at Michigan and fosters in her own research group at Minnesota.

ECE alumnus Rhonda Franklin uses her influence as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota to attract a diverse student population to the STEM field, and her own field of applied electromagnetics. She believes the best research results are achieved from a diversity of backgrounds, something she learned as a graduate student at Michigan and fosters in her own research group at Minnesota.

Prof. Franklin was on campus to take part in the 2016 NextProf Workshop, which brings highly qualified participants to campus to explore and prepare for a faculty position in engineering. This year’s Workshop focused on increasing diversity in engineering, and included undergraduate and first year graduate students to give them an introduction to academia.

We took the opportunity to ask Prof. Franklin a few questions, some of which we captured on video.

Why is diversity important, and how do you achieve it in a research group?

Research shows that if you have diversity then you’re more able to come up with a better solution because you have different points of view leading toward the solution.

I think a group advisor is the root of the system. If a group is very diverse then that advisor can make many different products with the same set of plants or flowers. But many faculty are not comfortable with diverse groups because it’s foreign. If you believe diversity is going to give you better outcomes then you have to teach people how to do it. We operate more by habit than we probably give ourselves credit for. Prof. Katehi [Franklin’s advisor at Michigan] taught us to be highly productive within a diverse group.

If you look at her [Linda Katehi’s] students who have gone into academia, in particular if they stayed in the U.S., they all have very diverse groups just like our group was. So there’s something to be said about teaching people how to be around people who are different.

Why should women go into engineering?

I think that women have always been engineers, it’s just that we’ve been engineering things that you don’t get paid to do. You’re engineering your families, you’re engineering your children’s lives, you’re engineering solutions every day.

So my advice is that we should participate in this space because we have a lot to say and a lot to contribute in terms of the creation of the things that our families and our friends and the communities at large utilize.

What I love about being an engineer is that every day I can see how the way I think about things as a female influences how I think about problem solving. We just have to see ourselves doing it and try to find in it things that we would like to see ourselves contribute to.

I work on communications and as a kid I always liked to talk, at least one on one, but I never knew that someday I would be designing the circuits that allow people to communicate. It’s the same thing.

I think it’s important that we have a voice in the creation of things.

Why should other underrepresented groups go into engineering?

For African American students or underrepresented groups, I think the other thing that’s really important about engineering is that the world is very diverse and the United States is just one small part of it. So even if you don’t see people who look like you doing this in the U.S., there are lots of people all over the world just like you who are engineers.

It would be such a loss to not be a part of the future designers of the American landscape technologically. It’s a fascinating area. Also, the ability to know that you can create solutions to help yourself, your family, and your community – there’s no better feeling than that.

Tell us about Project Connect

Prof. Franklin co-founded the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society’s International Microwave Symposium (IMS) Project Connect, which aims to “connect with and to provide science, technology, engineering, and math enriching opportunities to underrepresented undergraduate college students.” Other co-founders include EECS alumni Prof. Rashaunda Henderson (MSE PHD EE 1994 1999) from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Prof. Tom Weller (BSE MSE PHD EE 1988 1991 1995), Professor and Chair of Electrical Engineering at the University of South Florida, as well as Dr. Amy Duwell of Draper Laboratory. Franklin, Henderson, and Weller were all former members of Prof. Linda Katehi’s research group at Michigan.

Rhonda Franklin with Project Connect students Enlarge
Project Connect students with Prof. Rhonda Franklin, an Academic Panel speaker at the 2015 International Microwave Symposium.

Project Connect brings underrepresented students, minority and women to the main [International Microwave Symposium] conference. Rather than bring them there just do to professional development, we’re looking at juniors and seniors and some first year graduate students to teach them about engineering and help them understand what the industry looks like.

We have a dual program, they come and they get some professional development stuff, we talk about academia, jobs and industry and government jobs and we talk about resumes and graduate school. We also designed a program where students are teamed up with professionals when they get there and they go into the conference as if they are members of the community.

The third year we did this, the focus was entrepreneurship so we had some friends reach out to people they knew to come in and talk about starting a small company One of the speakers for the entrepreneurship panel is also a Michigan grad. His name is Curtis Ling and he’s the CTO of MaxLinear.  [read about Curtis Ling] He came in and talked about what his company is like, what he had to do to get it started and what’s important as an entrepreneur.

Read more about Project Connect

What else do you do to encourage underrepresented minorities in engineering?

A group of undergraduate women students came together one year and decided they wanted to form a group because there were so few of them in the department. I suggested they form an affinity group through IEEE’s Women in Engineering (WIE) program, and we now have an IEEE WIE program on campus.

When did you know you wanted to be a professor?

I knew I wanted to try becoming a professor, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a professor. But it’s not actually something you can just try. You’re either doing it, or you aren’t doing it.

By the time I finished Michigan, I thought I’d go into industry first, but then I just said, I’m going to apply now and see where it goes. It’s hard to know what it means to be a professor until you are actually in that position. Looking back now, it was absolutely the best choice for me.

I’m at a research university, which means that you supervise a research effort. You teach and educate young people and you get to train the next generation of researchers, people who will influence where technology goes, and that’s pretty exciting. It also means that you get to help decide what people learn, which is something that was interesting to me. And you help to educate the public as well.

Tell us about your research

At Michigan, I worked in the area of RF microwave circuit design and in packaging circuits at the circuit level. After I left, I got really fascinated in how to make things work together that wouldn’t normally be together. So in a way I’m an integrationist in a philosophical way and in a realistic way. I like to make things communicate that wouldn’t ordinarily communicate.

Right now, I have a really nice project where I’m working with a materials scientist who makes magnetic nanowires. She wants to understand how her nanowires behave based on different material systems, and my group is working to build a spectrometer to characterize her wires.

Before that I worked with a microbiologist who wanted to know how bacteria conducts current. So we built the circuits that he grew his bacteria on, which allowed him to study the current production of this bacteria. So here’s a microbiologist who understands how to grow bacteria and then you have me who’s a circuit designer trying to get those two worlds to come together. It was fascinating and hard, but in the end it worked out really well.

What made you decide on Michigan?

Lawrence Livermore National Lab sponsored my master’s degree as part of the GEM Fellowship Program. I was admitted to all 5 of the schools I applied to, then I had to decide where to go. Michigan was the most northern school and also the one that I thought, ‘I don’t know about that, that seems kind of far to me and cold.’

But I went to California and at the lab I met some people who had gone to Michigan, and they reassured me. Also, a couple of the students who went to my undergrad had also gone to Michigan. That eased my mind, but I was still not planning to come to Michigan.

I was planning to go to another institution in the south and I had been communicating with them for a good 6-8 months. But there was one thing that made Michigan stand out. When I got to the last phase of my assessment process I was looking for professors to work with. But it was hard to actually talk to any of the faculty, or find someone that I thought was a good fit. However, Linda Katehi actually answered her phone when I called. We didn’t talk long, but she told me about what she did and told me to let her know when I applied. She seemed friendly and even though I didn’t really understand what she was saying about her research, I thought, ‘I guess I’m going to Michigan.’

What was it like coming to Michigan as a graduate student?

It was the most amazing and terrifying experience ever. I’m from Texas and went to Texas A&M for undergrad. Texas is huge, so you feel like you know the world. But when I came here the first distinction was that at A&M I felt like I was around a lot of the best students in the country. When I came here I discovered that I was around the best students in the world. And that was like, whoa! Different countries know how to classify their students, so the idea that you’re in class with the number 5 student from a country was pretty overwhelming.

But the beauty of that experience is you’re training around all of these people who know so much and have been trained in so many different ways. It really expands your horizons. I feel like it was the hardest academic environment I was ever in, but it’s also the one in which I experienced the most growth and that was priceless.

What was it like working in Prof. Linda Katehi’s group?

She was one of the few people I’ve seen that can manage her group kind of like a wildflower garden. She would set her expectations, we’d discuss them, and then you’d have to make an agreement about what you’d be expected to do. I could then get there however I wanted.

What was nice about it is if you look at the people that came from that group at the time, we were all very, very different. But we could be whatever we were and somehow she could see how to manage us and lead us in a way that we could be very productive and successful without ever having to not be who we were.

Why should a student opt for graduate school?

I think that the most interesting problems and the most difficult problems are relegated to people with PhD’s, or at least a master’s degree. I think it’s important that all of us say, ‘what can I do to make sure that I’m qualified and eligible to be sitting at the same table as others trying to solve the world’s problems,’ then start taking the right steps in that direction to prepare yourself for it.

What do you love about engineering?

The thing I like most about being an engineer is the problem solving aspect of it and the fact that you can predict when a solution is going to hit a failure point and then come up with a new solution to push it beyond that boundary.

Engineering can also take you in many directions, and if you decide at some point you don’t want to practice in the engineering profession, you still carry these problem-solving skills that you’ve developed over time. And that’s pretty impressive to me.

How do you handle discouragement?

I reach out to someone who can give me some positive feedback to neutralize the negative energy that comes from dealing with bad situations. But in the absence of humans, I do two things.

First, I decide that I can only be angry about something for so much time, then I have to go do something else. I can come back and be angry again but I have to give myself limits. I might say 15 minutes if it wasn’t too bad, 30 minutes if it was horrible.

The second thing I do is to read biographies of people who’ve been successful. I especially like biographies of coaches. John Wooden is my favorite coach. In their stories I find my encouragement.

And I repeat this process as many times as needed until I move through it or get tired of feeling this way.

What was it like to be a minority student at Michigan?

I thought that Michigan did a really good job of trying to connect students of color to each other and that allowed us to be the community we needed. Believe it or not, over time a number of places have moved away from that model.

What bit of advice would you like to offer others?

Be the author of your own story. When you’re young, you are part of your parents’ stories, or you might become part of a friend’s story. But at some point you must become the author, producer, and director of your own story, and not let others take that away from you.

And then, remember that hardly anyone writes a perfect story on the first draft. So be prepared to re-write or improve those drafts as many times as needed until you get to a version that feels right for you. This is an on-going life-long process.


More Info

Rhonda Franklin Enlarge

Rhonda Franklin
MSE PHD EE 1990 1995
Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Minnesota

Rhonda Franklin uses her engineering background to solve problems and make the world a better place. She is passionate about including all members of society to participate in the process.

Research Summary

Prof. Franklin’s group focuses on the use of Microelectronic Mechanical Structures (MEMS) in radio frequency (RF) and microwave applications related to wireless, mobile, and satellite communications systems. In particular, emphasis is directed toward novel design, fabrication, and testing methods of planar circuits and antennas, such as microstrip, as well as package technology for integrated circuits. Prof. Franklin is also interested in exploring the use of advanced micromachined packages and interconnects in photonic and high-speed electronic (also referred to as RF/microwave photonic) applications.

MPACT and Outreach

Prof. Franklin’s research group is called Microwave Packaging and Circuit Technology (MPACT). In addition to their research, the group has a strong outreach component that focuses on summer outreach campus programs for undergraduates and off-campus community programs.

The on-campus programs provide research opportunities for undergraduates including students from ethnic minority groups, women, and non-research institutions.

The off-campus programs include local area high school presentations and Minnesota Science Museum events. Through these activities, MPACT researchers are able to use their technical skills to develop appropriate research projects to educate to future scholars, work in a diverse research environment, develop and exercise their creative spirit, and give back to the community through technology education.

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Alumna Rhonda Franklin named 2020 Scientist of the Year

Rhonda Franklin, ECE alumnus and professor at the University of Minnesota, received this award from the Minnesota Chapter of Advancing Science in America Foundation. Watch the presentation and talk.
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Mask making on a pandemic sabbatical

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University of Minnesota faculty receive Abbott Professorships to introduce prospective students to STEM

Alumna and ECE Advisory Council member, Prof. Rhonda Franklin, receives Institute for Engineering in Medicine Abbott Professorship in Innovative Education.