An Interview with
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
University of Maryland, Nariman Farvardin '79
1) Your thoughts on the RPI education and experience?
Rensselaer deserves much credit for my professional growth and success. But perhaps more important than anything else was the influence of a few faculty members who played a key role in my personal and professional development. Among them, the most influential was James W. Modestino. Jim game me the opportunity to work with him when I could not speak English properly and my writing was nothing short of awkward. He saw in me qualities that I could not see myself, brought me under his wing and gave me the support and friendship that I needed throughout my graduate studies. Jim’s counsel and unfailing support during my years at Rensselaer—and even after I left—have played a pivotal role in my success. Further, I am grateful to Professors William Pearlman and John Anderson for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and for the many enlightening discussions I have had with them over the past 28 years and to Lester Gerhardt for his support as department chair when I was a student at Rensselaer and for his friendship afterwards. I also remember with great admiration the late Bruce Carlson, my undergraduate advisor, who helped me tremendously in my initial months at Rensselaer, when I was clueless and confused.
2) Why did you choose a career of science/engineering academia?
Early in my life, it became clear to me and my parents that I was comfortable with math and sciences and had a love and passion for building things and tampering with gadgets. Throughout my teenage years, I used to spend a lot of my time studying advanced math and logic on my own. I was particularly interested in developing mathematical models for real-world physical phenomena. When I was 15, my uncle gave me an electronics/electrical machines kit which I found fascinating. I spent many days of that summer building various circuits and devices, ignoring everything else in my surroundings. That experience intensified my interest in engineering and, in particular, electrical engineering. When I was 15-16, I decided to become an electrical engineer and never changed my mind.
My interest in pursuing a career in academia originated in a keen interest in teaching that I developed when I was nine years old. My third-grade teacher asked me whether I would be willing to tutor one of my classmates who had a hard time with math and could not afford to hire a private tutor. I agreed. For a few months, I went to school early in the morning before school started to tutor her in math. She showed significant improvement in her understanding of basic concepts and her grades. This was a most gratifying, and obviously memorable, experience. I learned that I could be an effective teacher and tasted the gratification that comes with it. After that experience, I always remained involved in teaching in one form or another.
The interest in engineering and the love of teaching made the career path I pursued a natural choice.
3) Name a person or historical figure that has inspired you and why?
I have been inspired by Claude Shannon, the father of modern communications. Shannon’s genius paved the way for the development of much of the theoretical foundation of information theory and provided the motivation for the work that has led to many of the practical systems which have revolutionized our lives such as mobile communication. Shannon was ahead of his time, and his findings and assertions surprised most of the experts of his time.
4) Given the current state of affairs of science/engineering education in
America, what can RPI alumni do to help raise the bar?
For a variety of reasons, engineering and sciences have lost their luster as a profession and do not enjoy the prestige they deserve and once had. This is a serious issue because engineers and scientists play such a crucial role in improving the quality of life, from agriculture, transportation, and telecommunications to health care. We as a nation fail to attract a sufficiently large fraction of our talented young men and women to engineering and the sciences; this is a direct consequence of the loss of prestige. I am even more concerned with the percentage and number of American students who pursue their post baccalaureate degree, especially Ph.D., in engineering. We need more PhDs in engineering to advance the frontiers of research and pioneer new innovations, energizing our technology enterprise and fueling our economic development engine. This is the only way we can ensure the high standard of living we have enjoyed for future generations.
I would like to see a concerted effort, led by the government and supported strongly by the private sector, to enhance the prestige of the scientist, engineer, and engineering profession, focusing especially on identifying young people who are talented in math and sciences and encouraging them to pursue education and careers in science and engineering. RPI alumni who are in positions of influence in the government, private sector, or academia should help in this endeavor.
5) What personal advice or sentiments would you like to convey to the
DC-Baltimore alumni community?
First, remain in touch with your alma mater and help in whatever way you can. Second, try to take advantage of your proximity to Washington, DC, and your science and technology education and experience to play a positive role in important policy decisions. The number of technology-savvy people is woefully small among our lawmakers.