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Finding a Home in a Land of Green: The Story of Dr. Kun-Mu Chen and Michigan State University

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A biography of Dr. Chen, EMRG founder, as written by his son Ken Chen.

Finding a Home in a Land of Green

The Story of Dr. Kun-Mu Chen and Michigan State University

by Ken Chen

Top of His Class

My father’s story starts in a small town outside of Taipei, Taiwan on February 3rd, 1933.  He grew up the third of four children.  His father, my grandfather, worked for the post office.  He grew up poor, and the family stayed close through some hard times.  The hardest was when my father’s mother died when he was a young boy.  My father was raised not only by my grandfather, but also by his two older brothers.

He was a gifted and talented student from the start, and the family knew he was destined for great things.  He got in to the prestigious Taida - National Taiwan University, which, at the time, was considered the best university in Taiwan, and was respected around the world.  He graduated at the very top of his class in electrical engineering.  This is a fact that he repeats to his children and grandchildren often.

Upon graduation, he was selected as one of two winners for the C.T. Loo Fellowship.  This gave him the opportunity to get a full-ride scholarship to the graduate university of his choice.  His teachers and peers pushed him to go to Harvard University, after considering Ohio State and Yale.  He still remembers the day his father learned about this amazing opportunity by reading about it in the local newspaper.  He was equally shocked and proud of his son.

In September of 1957, my father, who had never traveled further than 10 miles from his home in Taiwan, boarded a plane from Taipei to Boston, Massachusetts, a journey that took 3 days and 3 nights.  His long airplane flights were filled with hundreds of scholars, most from China.  He was excited, but also scared about leaving his hometown for the first time in his life.  I’m still amazed at the courage and confidence he must have possessed to make this trip and start a new life.

No Time for Sleep

At Harvard, my father was mentored under Dr. Ronold W. P. King, a famous professor of Applied Physics.  He specialized in Electromagnetic Theory, and quickly realized that his schooling in Taiwan didn’t prepare him for the next step in his education.  The classes at Harvard were much more complicated and advanced.  He was learning English at the same time and his head was spinning.  He had to catch up every evening by studying undergraduate books given to him by TAs.  He also didn’t understand how to use the lab equipment as most of the equipment was completely new to him. 

He spent many long nights in the lab learning how to use the equipment, catching up on his studies, and learning new theories and concepts.  It was here where he learned to study late into the night, sometimes well into the morning, falling asleep at 3 or 4 in the morning.  He’d awake around 8 a.m. and start the cycle again.  “I had to study like hell every night.”  This would turn into a lifelong habit.

Blue, Not for Long

In the summer of 1960, he graduated from Harvard University with his Ph.D. in Applied Physics.  Right before graduation, Dr. Kip Siegel from the University of Michigan called Dr. King at Harvard, looking for promising research associates.  It took one phone call from Dr. Siegel, and my father had an offer for $10,000 to be a new research assistant.  My father was not even interviewed for the job himself, only overhearing the conversation between the two professors.  He went to work in the Radiation Lab, which was focused on research in electromagnetics and plasma physics.

My father was excited to work in what was a big lab at the time, at a top ten University.  They were helping with the space program, working with the U.S. Defense Department.  It was very hard work, and my father enjoyed it, although he was growing homesick.

In the summer of 1962, my father returned home to Taiwan for the first time since leaving, to marry the girl that he met in college, my mother Shun-Shun (or June).  They married that summer, after 8 years of dating (mostly overseas, writing letters), and headed together back to the U.S. and to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  My father calls my mother his “first and last girlfriend.”

Greener Pastures

In early 1964, my father saw an advertisement in the IEEE Magazine from Michigan State University.  They were looking for a candidate to lead a new electromagnetics program.  My dad answered the ad and talked to Dean Lawrence Von Tersch, who headed up the Michigan State College of Engineering.  He negotiated to become an Associate Professor, skipping over the usual Assistant Professor role.  He was attracted to the challenge of creating his own “empire.”  It was a great opportunity and he jumped at the chance to become the first Taiwanese professor at Michigan State University.  “I had no fear, just excitement,” said Dr. Chen.

He moved to East Lansing in August of 1964.  His first step was to create 5-6 new graduate courses in antenna theory and advanced electromagnetic theory.  Then, he went out to win research grants and landed a large significant grant with the United States Air Force:  “Radar Cross-Section with Impedance Loading”.  He had started that work at U of M, but he wanted to finish it at MSU.  So, in a unique “trade,” he was able to keep 80% of the grant funding when he moved to MSU – the first of many Spartan victories that he’s very proud to have won.

A Career Fulfilled

In possibly his most important move, he recruited Dr. Dennis Nyquist, a bright Masters student from Wayne State University, to study under him.  He proved to be a hard worker and in two years he got his Ph.D.  Dr. Nyquist would then become the second faculty member in the EM Group at Michigan State University, and would go on to have a distinguished career.  Most of his years he worked side by side with my father.  They couldn’t be more different in their personal beliefs, but my father deeply respected Dennis and the two were true partners –  passionate about EM and Michigan State.

The two expanded their research into plasma physics, then to electromagnetic applications in biological systems.  My father’s biggest grant was from the National Science Foundation, a $1 million grant for Microwave Application for a Life Detection System.  They built a system that used microwaves to detect heartbeats, first with rabbits and today with humans.  This research is used today at NASA, and is credited with saving lives after earthquakes in Central America and Tibet.

My father nurtured and produced many Ph.D. students during his career at MSU.  In the span of over 40 years, he produced 46 Ph.D. students, under his watchful eye.  But to this day he considers his best student to be Dr. Ed Rothwell.  Dr. Rothwell did his PhD research in my father’s labs after gaining his Masters degree in EE from Stanford University.  My father considered Ed to be a very good student, a hard-working researcher, and a great human being.  If you know my father, that’s a truly difficult thing to accomplish.  When it came time for Ed to graduate, my father was determined to make Dr. Rothwell another member of his EM team. 

His Dream Continues

My father retired in 2000, very proud of his accomplishments in the EM field and at Michigan State.  His legacy is the lab that exists today under Dr. Rothwell’s leadership.  He’s proud of the fact that this group has five faculty members now, including the current Dean of Engineering, a University Distinguished Professor, and Endowed Professor, and a named Assistant Professor.

Dr. Chen moved to San Diego to live with his youngest son, George, in 2002.  He has enjoyed many years of blissful weather, golfing (before having to hang the clubs up a few years ago), his four children (his eldest daughter Maggie is an administrator at MSU), and six grandchildren.  He still follows the Michigan State Spartans in football and basketball, and appreciates any opportunity to share the lessons in his life with others.  He’s lived a good, full life, and our family is forever grateful to Michigan State.