“Teaching is an incredible opportunity. Someone comes to my class excited, with a mind wide open to the possibilities of the world, actually wanting to know about this really cool and interesting electrical engineering stuff. And you know that what you teach them is going to change their life and the lives of their family and friends.”

Cynthia Furse: Shaping the U

Whether she’s at the ends of the earth in frigid temperatures or tucked away in her University of Utah lab, electrical engineering professor Cynthia Furse is determined to make the world a better place. As an educator, she’s guiding young minds. As the associate vice president of research for the University, she is helping shape the school’s future. And as a U graduate, she has a long and proud legacy here.

Q: How and why did you choose electrical engineering as your main interest, and why did you pick the University of Utah to pursue your academic studies?

A: Idealistic as it is, I wanted to change the world and make it a better place. I always loved math and science – as well as literature and music and animals and theater and the outdoors – so it was actually a pretty hard choice. My physics teacher suggested I look into engineering because engineering inventions constantly change and improve our world. About the same time, I did a job shadow with a doctor who told me how the MRI machine – a fairly recent invention at the time – changed everything for her by improving her ability to take care of her patients. I actually started out in mechanical engineering, but it didn’t have enough math (sorry folks in ME!). My then-boyfriend, now-husband knew Professor Tom Stockham, who invented digital recording, and that was certainly fascinating stuff. So I gave electrical engineering a whirl, and I loved it.

I chose the U because there were a lot of classes that sounded really interesting to me. They gave me a presidential scholarship so I could pay for my education. I could see myself enjoying life on campus. I auditioned for the orchestra, one of my close friends also came to the U, and people were nice here. It felt like college opened up my whole world. It didn’t matter how I dressed, what music I listened to, if my family was rich or poor, or where we came from. People were fun and friendly. It felt really good.

Q: What are you researching now and what impact do you hope it will have?

A: We are developing antennas that can be tattooed on the surface of the skin to communicate with medical implants such as pacemakers, hormone pumps, deep brain stimulators for Parkinson’s disease, artificial limbs, and many more neurological applications. Today’s implants are already small (about 2 by 2 inches by ¼ inch) for the antennas that are needed to read battery levels and medical diagnostics. The next generation of implants will be even smaller (about one-quarter inch all around). Using more of the body surface can allow us to make the antennas large enough to do their job while the implant is small enough to be tucked away in the body. There are a lot of innovations in every tiny implant, and this would be one of many ideas that go into a final device to help people see, hear, breathe, and to keep their heart beating and their body moving.

Q: You spent three and a half weeks in the Antarctic and a couple weeks in the Arctic regions to study the electrical properties of sea ice. What was it like to be at the far ends of the Earth?

It was amazing, a very moving experience. Flying over the ice-covered mountains gave me the sense of how huge the world really is. And working on the ice, I realized just how fragile the world is. Camping with a team of scientists from all over the world who were intensely interested in the same patch of ice while sharing thoughts and questions and ideas was so intellectually stimulating. Many good ideas flowed. Tromping around in huge boots, with enough clothes to poof like the Michelin Man and dragging sleds and gear – all in the shadow of volcanic Mount Erebus – was physically strenuous and intimidating. Yet at the same time, it was fascinating and brilliant.

Q: As the associate vice president of research for the University of Utah, what directions in research around campus do you think will be really interesting for the future?

A: There is a huge potential in biomedical applications with new ways of diagnosing and treating diseases and injuries. Utah is very strong in this area. We have barely scratched the surface of the potential of the genome, and there is and will continue to be much research in Utah on genetics research of all kinds. We can now touch an individual neuron, which opens up opportunities in reading the electrical signals in the body and replacing or repairing them. The world also needs clean, efficient energy – which is very important in Utah with our local air quality – so we are continually researching ways to improve our environment. People, our problems, and our successes are always fascinating research areas. Why and how do we do what we do? How do we learn, communicate and make choices? And how is all of this impacted by the world around us? Those are just some of the vital questions we ask ourselves every day as we pursue our research.

Q: Education and teaching are important to you based on the work you have done and the awards you have received. Talk about why you value teaching and the rewards it brings you.

A: Teaching is an incredible opportunity. Someone comes to my class excited, with a mind wide open to the possibilities of the world, actually wanting to know about this really cool and interesting electrical engineering stuff. And you know that what you teach them is going to change their life and the lives of their family and friends. What they do in their career – the inventions, the ideas, the raw engineering – is what creates the improvements we all need in the next generation. These young students are the ones who are going to build the efficient electric car, the systems to improve our air quality, the better tools and imaging systems to diagnose and treat what ails us, and the high-speed communication system that will allow me to see my granddaughter’s smile with crystal clarity as she talks to me. These students come from all parts of the globe, and many will return to bring water and food and basic necessities to people who do not have them today. My students will have the power to solve real problems that impact real people. It’s a big honor to work with this new generation of students, knowing that in a few short years from now they will be working to solve problems we have today and even some we don’t know exist.

Q: You have embraced the technique of the “flipped classroom” and are now teaching it to other college professors. What is it, and how does it improve the experience for students?

A: I love teaching “flipped.” I started doing this in 2007 when it didn’t even have a name! I called it “No More Lecture.” In a flipped classroom, you flip what used to be inside the classroom (the lecture) and what used to be outside the classroom (homework and problem solving). Students watch short video lectures before they come to class, preparing them for the active learning activities we can do in class. We can start their homework and work on problem-solving techniques, not just finding the right answer. We can do demos and talk about real world applications of what they are learning. It is like having twice as much time with my class, and I can be there for the aspects of learning that I really want to work with them on. Students learn better this way. They are able to apply what they learn, and they understand the material to a higher level. Most also enjoy it more. The lecture is there online, so you can watch it whenever you want, stop and repeat sections you didn’t understand, and review it later as needed. The class time can be more interesting, and you have something to actually think about that helps you understand what you are learning well beyond the math and equations.

I have mentored a number of faculty who have also flipped their courses. Many professors at the U are doing this now in departments all across campus. This has been so successful that we are also teaching faculty and a lot of K-through-12 educators around the world via an online program at teach-flip.utah.edu. It’s a vibrant experience to share teaching ideas and notes with educators from so many disciplines and so many countries. I learn a ton every time we teach this online program.