Tingye Li and wife Edith Wu Li




Brian Schmidt

Lightwaves, lattes, and Xboxes

Tingye Li: Lightwave pioneer
While most people are happy to ease into a comfortable retirement by age 76, Tingye Li would find a traditional retirement anything but comforting. Instead, the renowned scientist continues to work long hours — often until 2 or 3 in the morning, particularly when tackling a compelling book project or absorbed in some new endeavor.

Now an independent consultant in the field of lightwave communications, Li worked for Bell Laboratories/AT&T for 41 years before retiring in December 1998. Since the late 1960s he has been engaged in pioneering research on lightwave technologies and systems. During the 1990s he led the work on amplified wavelength-division-multiplexed (WDM) transmission systems, which he and his colleagues innovated, and he advocated for a massive (and cost-effective) upgrade of the transmission capacity of telecommunications networks. Optical fiber (lightwave) WDM systems are now deployed worldwide. In short, Li’s work has had a revolutionary impact on lightwave communications, which continues to meet the growing demands of the information society.

Li is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has garnered many awards for his various contributions, including the 1981 Northwestern Alumni Merit Award.

“This is a field of never-ending interest,” says Li. “It involves fundamental science, it involves high tech, and it involves the innovation to turn fundamental science into technology that can be used to benefit society and humankind.”

To that end Li serves on the boards of several optical component and systems companies and as a volunteer for many professional societies, as well as pursuing a zealous dedication to higher education.

The son of a diplomat, Li was born and raised in China until age 11. His mother, who died last year at the age of 105, was a “foremost feminist and very much ahead of the movement, ” Li says. A scholarship in her name has been established at her alma mater in China. Li himself earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where, he says, rigorous training in mathematics, science, and engineering served him well. In 1958 he earned a PhD in electrical engineering from the McCormick School.

Li has been involved in education in China, having been named an honorary professor at 12 of the country’s major universities. He travels to China regularly to give seminars and to meet with professors and students; he is not shy about speaking his mind — as, for example, on the direction of research, the processes of funding research, curricula that lead to specialization too soon, issues of ethical behavior, and other matters.

Another of Li’s concerns is the state of higher education in science and technology here in the United States. “If we don’t pay close attention, we will lag behind,” he says. “The politicians worry about jobs going overseas now, but I worry about jobs coming back in the future should we ever become a provider of cheap labor. The source of innovation in my field has been in the United States, but as time goes on this will migrate elsewhere as developing countries progress rapidly and as the smarter students in this country go into financial fields where the rewards are better.”

Li believes that the U.S. government needs to better support higher education, encourage bright young students toward science and technology fields, and fund innovative research. “We need to press this point very hard, and unfortunately there is only a minority of politicians speaking out on these issues,” he says.

His commitment to education is reflected in the generous charitable gift annuity he and his wife, Edith Wu Li, established earlier this year to support an endowed fund for graduate fellowships at McCormick. “I think Northwestern is doing the right things, as most outstanding universities here are,” Li says.

His ties to Northwestern are exceptionally strong, and Li is quick to give credit to his professors here. His wife’s connection to Northwestern runs equally deep: Not only did she earn an undergraduate business degree from what was then known as the School of Commerce, but she and her sister came to Northwestern at the suggestion of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, who served as their guardian while they were in school and who was a good friend of their father, a prominent Chinese politician who served as a mayor of Shanghai and later as a governor of Taiwan.

While Li hopes to help draw attention to the issues of higher education and advanced technology, he continues to work and stay abreast of the latest research in the pursuit of innovation. “It has been a very exciting career, and it will never end until I finally close my eyes and leave the world. As long as I can use my brain, I will keep pursuing what intellectually stimulates and challenges me.”

—Susan White

Brian and Emily Muly Schmidt: Traversing disciplines
Brian and Emily Muly Schmidt of Bellevue, Washington, can honestly say their workdays consist of coffee and video games. Brian has made a career composing music and advancing the quality of audio in the gaming industry. Emily is currently a technical project leader for Starbucks Coffee Company. Though they can’t say that engineering brought them together (they met during Emily’s sophomore year at a fraternity dance where Brian’s band was playing), they do credit the McCormick School with establishing the foundation for their careers.

Brian entered Northwestern as a tuba major and soon shifted his focus to music theory and composition. He also had a strong interest in computer science. “I could have received a liberal arts degree in music and computer studies,” he says. “But I really wanted an engineering degree — to go deeper and master the fundamentals of technology and the processes behind them.”

Because he was attending Northwestern, which has excellent engineering and music schools, Brian was able to merge his passions, create a new interdisciplinary program, and pursue dual degrees in music and technology. He says his courses in material science, chemistry, and physics taught him to think like an engineer and understand the concepts of process and control. He was also inspired to combine music and computer science by the work of Gary Kendall, now associate professor of music technology, who at the time was creating the curriculum and building a studio for a new computer music program. “I really feel like I got the best from both schools,” says Brian. “Seeing how the professors from both schools worked together on my behalf was really huge.”

Brian earned bachelor’s degrees in music composition and computer science in 1985 and went on to get a master of science degree in computer applications in music in 1988. As the program manager for Xbox and Windows game audio and media for Microsoft, where he has worked since 1998, Brian uses his unique blend of hands-on composition, sound design experience, and deep technical knowledge to further the state of the industry. He worked as a freelance consultant with such interactive entertainment companies as Sega and Sony before joining Microsoft and has composed music for more than 120 interactive games, including John Madden Football, Jurassic Park, and the Star Wars Trilogy. He also successfully helped lobby to make video game music eligible for a Grammy award; in 2000 games were added to the film/TV category.

Emily participated in Northwestern’s National High School Institute (the summer Cherub program) and says the experience completely sold her on both the McCormick school and Northwestern. “It provided the ideal atmosphere for learning and exposure to the kinds of things I could be studying.” Emily says her McCormick course work gave her a solid education in math and science and exposure to subjects like civil engineering and thermodynamics. At the same time, she wanted more than a strictly technical experience.

“I loved that I had friends who were radio/TV/film program and journalism majors,” she says. “Looking back, I can say you can’t underestimate the value of seeing people doing other things and how it can relate to your field.”
When she received her bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1991, Emily joined her father, Emil (electrical and computer engineering ’58, PhD ’62), and mother, Faye Ochsenhirt Muly (chemical engineering ’61), as McCormick alums. In fact, Emily and her mother were the first mother and daughter to both earn engineering degrees from McCormick.

As she began her career, Emily discovered the value of combining her engineering training with broader experience, and she understood that McCormick had been an ideal place to foster cross-disciplinary study. The most rewarding part of her position at Starbucks is, she says, “being able to apply technology to business and helping people understand the technology. It is really satisfying.”

While their workdays may be filled with coffee and video games, these two McCormick graduates have clearly wasted no time in turning their passions into productive careers.

—Michele Hogan and Lina Sawyer