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Father-Son Bonding

In the Kumars and the Chopps, Northwestern Engineering’s faculty roster includes two father-son duos

On his first day as a Northwestern Engineering faculty member last fall, Rajan Kumar saw a familiar face with a wide smile standing at his office door.

His father, Prem Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and a faculty member at Northwestern since 1986, said he stopped by to welcome his son back “home” and savor the opportunity to count him as a colleague. Secretly, though, Rajan Kumar wonders if a different paternal instinct didn’t drive his father’s visit.

“I think he really just wanted to see my office and what it looked like,” Rajan Kumar said with a grin.

Fatherly habits, after all, are hard to break.

It’s not often such familial ribbing occurs among the faculty ranks at a leading institution, but this academic year marks such an occasion at Northwestern Engineering, where the Kumars join David and Henry Chopp as father-son faculty duos.

Following in dad’s footsteps

David Chopp, a professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, joined the Northwestern Engineering faculty in 1996. The son of a high school math teacher, David Chopp savors teaching at Northwestern, where he has developed numerous courses over the years, including a popular offering on high-performance computing, and earned the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence award in 2008.

David Chopp always thought his son, Henry Chopp, might continue the family’s teaching legacy, especially as he built an expansive tutoring business as a high school student.

“I saw it firsthand: Henry has the teacher gene,” David Chopp said of his son.

But Henry Chopp largely assumed he’d pursue a career in industry as he earned a trio of electrical engineering degrees from Northwestern – a BS in 2017, an MS in 2020, and a PhD in 2023. The opportunity to teach as a postdoc at Northwestern Engineering came as a surprise, and Henry Chopp decided to give it a whirl, tugged, in part, by the respect he saw his father earn as a teacher.

David Chopp, left, and Henry Chopp.

“I remember tagging along with him to his classes and events since grade school and I felt a sense of pride as others spoke about him as a teacher in such a positive way,” Henry Chopp said. “I suppose that planted a seed that maybe I might teach someday, too.”

Before returning to Northwestern Engineering, where he earned a BS degree in materials science and engineering in 2014, Rajan Kumar was a lecturer at Stanford University. The prospect of returning to his alma mater and joining his father as a faculty member excited Rajan Kumar when he learned of an open assistant professor of instruction position in Northwestern Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“In the back of my mind, I always thought it would be special to come back one day,” said Rajan Kumar, who fondly remembers visiting his father on campus as an elementary school student. “I never thought it might happen so quickly, though, and it felt surreal to have the offer in hand.”

Continuing a tradition

Both Rajan Kumar and Henry Chopp use words like “excited” and “nervous” to describe earning faculty appointments at Northwestern Engineering, where their respective fathers have enjoyed long, distinguished careers. Their surnames follow them around, even if the sons reside in different academic departments than their fathers.

Rajan Kumar, however, considers his father’s presence and profile a blessing and an inspiration. He knows his father, who has taught basic electrical engineering and advanced photonics and quantum electronics courses at Northwestern for nearly 40 years, has wisdom to share and provides a solid path to follow.

Rajan Kumar, left, and Prem Kumar.

“I’m definitely trying to leverage how my dad communicates with students, which is unique and impactful,” Rajan Kumar said. “He’s always been about understanding the why and the how, not just what, and helping students to think critically about deep problems, which is something I hope to emulate in the classroom.”

Prem Kumar calls Rajan’s return to Northwestern an opportunity to make up for lost time – he was in Washington, D.C. with DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office during a portion of Rajan’s undergraduate years – and said he’s honored his son pursued teaching.

“I love teaching and think it such a worthy profession, so to see my son carry on the tradition of imparting knowledge to others is so fulfilling,” Prem Kumar said.

The perks of dad’s presence

When Henry Chopp began teaching his first course, Fundamentals of Signals and Systems, in January, he leaned on his father for logistical support, such as how to input grades, as well as advice on encouraging a student who had dropped the course following the mid-term to return.

“I had to tell him that’s how higher ed goes sometimes,” David Chopp said.

A competitive Henry Chopp might not enjoy that academic reality, but he accepted his father’s pragmatic advice and retains high goals nonetheless.

“I want to make my students enjoy any course I teach, even if it’s not their cup of tea,” said Henry Chopp, who readily admits he’s chasing better course evaluation scores than his father. “If I can do that, I know I’ll be on the right track given the standard he’s set.”

The Chopps’s respective offices are located in the same hallway at the Technological Institute on Sheridan Road. It’s a rare day one doesn’t stop in to see the other. The two are also looking to revive a tradition launched during Henry’s undergraduate years – a weekly lunch.

“That’s hit a snag since the closing of Al’s Deli [on Noyes Street earlier this year], but we’ll find a new place,” David Chopp said.

“Absolutely,” Henry Chopp added.