Who are you?
I am İlke Ercan, I am new engineering faculty at UCR. I am an electrical engineer by training and I have a background in physics.

Where are you from?
I am from Antalya, a seaside city in Southern Turkey. I was born and raised there. I moved to Ankara for college. I was at Middle East Technical University. As soon as I graduated I moved to the US for my master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I did not originally plan to do a Ph.D. in engineering. But I was very impressed with the theoretical aspect of engineering research pursued  in my lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, so I decided to proceed with the Ph.D. program in engineering.

What kind of lab were you working in?
It was a theory and simulation lab on nanoelectronics. I pursued my Ph.D. on energy efficiency of emerging nanocomputing systems. Since 1980s, the building blocks of modern computer processors have been shrinking in size steadily enabling us to progressively develop smaller circuits operating at increasingly faster speeds. However, there are physical limits to this trend, and numerous proposals are being set forth to overcome these limitations. In fields like medicine and engineering especially we do need more powerful computers for more advanced solutions — and they need to be more energy efficient too. In my doctoral thesis I developed a methodology that enables us to assess the performance of these different proposals, which did not seem to have a common ground at all. By using my background in physics I was able to create physical models of computing systems by which different proposals could be compared on an equal footing. My work on performance analysis of nanocomputing systems eventually led me to broader questions of energy efficiency and sustainability in Information and Communication Technologies, which is one of the things I will be working on here at UCR.

And I believe you had some liberal arts experience in the US?
I did. While I was still a grad student, finishing my Ph.D., I got an offer from neighboring Smith College to teach a course in circuit theory, but in a liberal arts context. I spent a semester there, teaching in their Picker program in Engineering, and it had such a strong impact on my academic career. I had originally planned to pursue a career at a research intensive engineering institute, however, my experience at Smith College showed how rewarding it is to work with small groups of highly engaged students interested in a broad range of topics who are eager to make research an educational experience! I loved being there and they loved having me there, so they asked me to stay a little bit longer — and I did.

And I believe you had some liberal arts experience in the US?
I did. While I was still a grad student, finishing my Ph.D., I got an offer from neighboring Smith College to teach a course in circuit theory, but in a liberal arts context. I spent a semester there, teaching in their Picker program in Engineering, and it had such a strong impact on my academic career. I had originally planned to pursue a career at a research intensive engineering institute, however, my experience at Smith College showed how rewarding it is to work with small groups of highly engaged students interested in a broad range of topics who are eager to make research an educational experience! I loved being there and they loved having me there, so they asked me to stay a little bit longer — and I did.

My experience at Smith College has strongly influenced my decision to come to UCR. The students interested in engineering here are liberal arts and sciences students. We are not treating them as hardcore engineering students. They are more broadminded, adaptable and flexible than that — and engineers need to be in today’s world. As I noticed during my Ph.D. research, advancements in emerging technologies require us to adapt very quickly to new developments. I had a minor in philosophy of science and had taken courses in the sociology of engineering, which allowed me to make more informed decisions about my career and supported my pursuing an interdisciplinary path. That is why I believe that the breadth of knowledge characteristic of the liberal arts will make you a better engineer. And engineering can contribute to liberal arts as well; consider those interested in policy making and governance for instance. These students will benefit from a good grasp of modern technologies and their impact. The breadth of liberal arts and sciences makes engineering stronger, and specific knowledge about technology and engineering strengthens the quality of UCR’s program as a whole.

I know that when Smith College introduced engineering 15 years ago, worries surfaced that resemble those we have seen at UCR: the fear that a focus on technology and the funding available for it may cause the college to drift away from its core values. How do you relate to that?
I certainly understand these worries. A lot is about our vocabulary: students who engage in engineering at UCR are liberal arts students, just like students in sociology or art and design are. And I actually think that adding engineering is not the real problem. The college is going through some major changes with regard to the academic core and the languages. That development has made it a challenge for the wider community to welcome engineering. The two developments are not co-related, yet, the timing requires us to process both transitions simultaneously. Despite this difficulty, however, the majority of colleagues have been very welcoming; they invited us to classes, have introduced us to their ways of teaching, and we are discussing ways in which we can collaborate on a number of projects. So we are working our way around biases.

It is true that we are doing a lot at the same time. Bringing change to an institution is never easy, but we are getting there. But let me change the subject by throwing my final question at you: What is your greatest ambition?
My professional ambition is to make higher education as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Education has changed my life. I come from what I would call a semi-educated family. My dad did not finish high school, my mom dropped out of college to marry my dad. I am the very first person in the whole of my extended family to ever get a Ph.D. I know how big of a privilege that is and I am immensely grateful to everyone who has supported me in following this path. I appreciate how much it has helped me to become myself. I want that transformational power to be accessible to as many people as possible. Education is both a personal and a social process. We need to make higher education as personal as possible, like UCR’s new motto on the website: an education built around you. I am a firm believer in one-on-one contact between students and teaching faculty. The personal connection is what enables us to help students find ways to integrate what they have learned at the theoretical level into their personal lives.