Mr. President, Mr. Past-President, friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, Marina, Freddie, and Michael:
I am deeply grateful and proud to receive this great honor today. To me it means not only recognition for the achievements of my research group but it also implies a responsibility to the previous awardees, all of them leaders of our profession whom I respect highly. One of the previous awardees is, of course, this year’s Bode Prize recipient Pravin Varaya.
It has been exactly 30 years since I started my Ph.D. research in the field of automation and control, and together with you I want to look back at those three decades. First I would like to acknowledge the wonderful people and institutions that I had the fortune to be associated with. Then, in the second part of my talk I want to share with you some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the course of my career.
Those 30 years naturally divide into three periods of equal length. The first period was one of learning.
In 1975, thanks to a lot of luck, I ended up at the University of Minnesota for my graduate studies. The University of Minnesota had the best Chemical Engineering Department at that time—and it still does. For a couple of decades the department was a breeding ground of the technical elite in the United States if not the world. Andy Grove, long time CEO of Intel, can trace his academic roots back to this department, and so can Mr. Gore, the inventor of Gore-Tex. The current president of Boston University, the current dean of Earth Sciences at Stanford, the current dean of engineering at Northwestern University—all were my classmates, and I could probably go on for an hour reciting the accomplishments of this great department.
All faculty there affected my thinking but most profoundly my two advisors George Stephanopoulos and Rutherford Aris. Sadly, Aris passed away just a few weeks ago after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Aris collaborated with Richard Bellman, and they published a couple of papers together on the application of dynamic programming to the design of chemical reactors. Aris received the Bellman award from the American Automatic Control Council in 1992. In an obituary published in the New York Times, Aris was referred to as a Renaissance man and a polymath. His degrees were in mathematics. He was professor of chemical engineering but also taught paleography in the Department of Classics and Near Eastern Studies. Several of his scientific papers are written in Latin. Maybe most importantly, Aris was known to be an extremely kind man.
The other person at Minnesota with a profound influence on my life and career was George Stephanopoulos. He has since moved on to MIT and later made history when he became the Chief Technology Officer of Mitsubishi Chemicals. He was the first Westerner ever to assume a high-level management and board position in a major Japanese company. He was (and is) a visionary and philosopher. Most importantly, he taught me to pick research problems of long-term impact and to not just simply follow the crowd.
The third major influence on my academic career was Reuel Shinnar, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at City College. For many years he assumed the role of a mentor, and later he became a collaborator and dear friend. I greatly appreciate that he came to Seville specifically to attend this award ceremony. From Reuel I learned how to look at problems of bewildering complexity and to identify what is important.
From Minnesota I moved on to the University of Wisconsin, at that time the second-best chemical engineering department in the United States, where I was lucky to have as a colleague, mentor, and friend Harmon Ray, a previous Eckman award winner. Harmon supported my budding career as an assistant professor in every way possible, most importantly through his advice and honest critique. I still regard the environment I found at Wisconsin as the model environment for an assistant professor.
The second period in my academic life started with my move to Caltech, having been offered a position by John Seinfeld, another Eckman award winner. John became a close friend who helped me attract another John and Eckman award winner, John Doyle, to Caltech. John and I later founded the Department of Control and Dynamical Systems.
But more so than any specific individual, the two factors that made Caltech so valuable for me were the unparalleled intellectual atmosphere and the superb graduate students. It gives me special pleasure that two of them are also being honored today. Richard Braatz was my graduate student, while Gary Balas worked with John Doyle. Gary and I had many discussions and shared many laughs.
Over the last 25-plus years I supervised more than 45 doctoral students and numerous postdocs. More than 20 of them now hold positions in academia. Among them is an Eckman award winner as well as a member of the Norwegian Academy of Engineering; almost all of them have won NSF career awards or the equivalent. These graduate students I regard as my most important and longest lasting contribution to the field of dynamical systems and control. Napoleon once said: “Glory is fleeting but obscurity is forever.” It is those students who are responsible for the difference between glory and obscurity.
The most important event during this second period of my career was, however, the founding of our family, and I want to thank Marina, Freddie, and Michael for standing by me during all these years.