Erick Maxwell"What's Hard?" The Challenges and Rewards of Getting Outside the Box
University of South FloridaTampa, FL
Erick Maxwell's doctoral research at the University of South Florida (USF) involves the use of
Ultra Wide Band technology in the detection of lymphatic cancer. His achievements are remarkable,
and all the more so in light of the fact that his original life plan didn't even include college.
Erick enlisted in the US Army at age 16 and attended boot camp before finishing high school. He
planned on joining the regular Army right after graduation. But that changed when a college-bound
friend he met at basic training encouraged Erick to look at the option of joining the Army Reserves
and continuing his education.
''College wasn't a priority in our family,'' Erick says. ''But I had good grades in high school, an
interest in science and an aptitude for math.'' He matriculated at Southern A&M University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), in Baton Rouge and sought the advice of a counselor when choosing a major field of study. ''I asked the counselor, 'What's hard?' He said 'engineering.' I sometimes wish he had said 'medicine'!'' Determined to challenge himself, and with some
trepidation, Erick majored in electrical engineering.
Erick's Army Reserve unit was called up at the end of his sophomore year to serve in the Persian Gulf War. He was in the Gulf region for over seven months, almost the entire duration of the war, through Desert Storm, Shield and Farewell. The experience shaped his perspective - on his return to Southern he felt less caution and fear about his studies, and his grades improved. War had given him
new perspective on his priorities.
World events intervened once again a few years later. ''I got married after graduation and was accepted to Georgia Tech for grad school,'' Erick says. ''We looked for a place to live in Atlanta. But the summer Olympics were being hosted in Atlanta that year -- we couldn't find any housing. My aunt lived in Atlanta but we decided - as newlyweds - that staying with family would not be a good
choice! So I put my resume out to industry.''
Erick spent 6 years working as a hardware detail digital designer for Harris Corporation in
Melbourne, Florida, designing digital communications equipment for government customers. When
working to debug an analog designer's hardware, he became dissatisfied by his own lack of knowledge about the intricacies of Radio Frequency (RF) and Microwave technology. ''I hated not knowing,'' he
says. The need to challenge himself and continue learning inspired him to attend grad school at the University of South Florida, which he did with the help of a McKnight Fellowship. He completed two
masters' degrees, and then became a PhD candidate in the IGERT SKINS program.
SKINS brings together multidisciplinary teams involving motivated graduate students and faculty
from engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and business, along with industrial sponsors. Erick's advisors are Dr. Tom Weller, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and
IGERT co-director, and Dr. Jeffrey Harrow, Professor of Internal Medicine at the James A. Haley
Veterans' Hospital located on USF's campus. The common goal of the SKINS program is to
investigate the dynamic, information-rich molecular structure of the ''ultimate smart interface'' - human skin - by coupling advances in biological, microsystems, nanotechnology, and information
''Becoming an IGERT really helped my research,'' Erick says. ''I was working in cancer research from
the engineering side but I couldn't move it forward until the interdisciplinary aspect was added. Then the doors of opportunity opened...people could now see the appropriateness of what I was trying to achieve.''
''My research is investigating the feasibility of using Ultra-Wideband signals to detect cancer of
the axillary lymph nodes. I'm seeking to determine the extent that lymphatic metastases can be
non-invasively detected using an Ultra-Wideband platform,'' he explains. ''UWB has great potential to improve the effectiveness of detecting lymphatic and other types of cancer.''
Erick's research goals are to determine the extent to which lymphatic cancer affects the intensity
and morphology of recovered UWB signals, and to formulate UWB electrical characteristics for normal
and malignant tissue. Increased resolution, selectivity, and specificity provided by UWB cancer
detection could ultimately lead to a reduction in the number of elective lymphodectomies and
enhancement in the effectiveness of lymph node cancer treatment.
''I was really able to refine my research topic with the advice of contacts made through IGERT that I wouldn't have had otherwise,'' he says. ''The interdisciplinary aspects of being an IGERT gave me
two things. First, the mindset and comfort with collaborating outside of my area - I previously had no vision of how to accomplish that. The IGERT courses I took gave me that. Second, the network I
needed to achieve my goals - faculty and other IGERT students that I could use as points of contact.''
Erick plans to finish his PhD in mid-2006. He sees his future as containing a balance between the
worlds of industry, entrepreneurship, and the academy. He will expand the work he's doing now into his own private venture - Maxwell Research Corporation - but is also interested in teaching and in
keeping connections to academe in a research capacity, and wants to maintain his university contacts.
Erick waxes philosophical on the benefits of interdisciplinary education and research as embodied
in the IGERT ideal. ''I fully support the idea of going outside of your discipline area,'' he says. ''You can almost look at it as taking a step backward to the great scientists of the past. Think about Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, or Benjamin Franklin. They weren't locked into their individual
ields. For them, it was all about creating value for mankind. We need to get out of the disciplinary box and see how we can make things better for the world at large.''
To learn more about the IGERT SKINS program, visit http://igert.eng.usf.edu. Erick Maxwell's homepage is: http://helios.acomp.usf.edu/~emaxwel2
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