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Engineering in the Alps

Kevin Mader (ECE ’08, MS ’08)

Kevin Mader (ECE '08, MS '08, who is teaching at ETH Zürich, bikes in one of the side valleys of Engadin in the Swiss Alps.

Kevin Mader (ECE ’08, MS ’08), who is teaching at ETH Zürich, bikes in one of the side valleys of Engadin in the Swiss Alps.

As a master’s candidate studying Photonics at Boston University, Kevin Mader (ECE ’08, MS ’08) decided to become an Undergraduate Teaching Fellow, a position that allowed him to work with students and help them master difficult concepts.

“I felt like I could help students because I had just struggled with learning the concepts a year before and could relate well to what they were going through,” he said.

The experience made Mader realize he wanted to become a teacher and today, he is a lecturer at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, where he is hoping to inspire the next generation to get excited about engineering.

“I think that a lot of students lose interest in science and engineering early on because it becomes too technical before it gets interesting,” he said. “I hope to try and make it exciting without watering it down too much.”

Prior to living in Switzerland, Mader’s roots were in the United States, where he lived in California, Ohio, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Still, moving abroad wasn’t quite the challenge you might expect.

“For some things it is no adjustment at all – there are Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants on nearly every street corner – but for other aspects getting used to a new language and a different culture can take some time,” he explained. “Luckily, students seem to be pretty similar all around the world and Zürich is a very international city so it’s never a problem finding interesting people and somewhere to fit in.”

As an undergraduate studying Electrical Engineering at BU, Mader worked closely with Senior Lecturer, Babak Kia, on his senior design project. Like in Switzerland, Mader never had any problems finding other researchers he could collaborate with effortlessly.

“He was a very effective team player, espousing a humble leadership style and patiently sharing his thoughts and ideas with his team,” said Kia, who served as Mader’s customer during senior design.

Mader’s team, Esplanade Runner, was tasked with enabling a robot to navigate a Google Maps route while avoiding obstacles in its path. Known as autonomous navigation, the project was assigned a few years before Google Street View cars were popularized.

Calling the research one of his “most valuable experiences at BU,” Mader said, “Our project was particularly cool since it was tangible: make a little car follow a route and avoid obstacles. It was also deceptively simple, and I learned how difficult it is to make timelines and get everything running on time. We spent a few nights in the lab banging our heads against the wall trying to synchronize our vehicle, compass, sensors, and GPS.”

The hard work ultimately paid off and their team won the ECE Day Best Presentation Award that year.

“Kevin could hardly contain his drive and enthusiasm throughout the project,” said Kia. “He has such a natural ability and curious mind for exploring the unknown that is just a joy to witness.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Mader decided to continue his studies by pursuing a master’s in Photonics at BU.

“Initially I was intrigued by Photonics because I had no idea what it really was and had studied in the building by that name for years,” said Mader. “After taking the introductory class I was surprised by how complicated imaging really is – iPhones make it so easy – and how much potential there was in the field.”

Mader had completed a summer internship at the Center for Biophotonics at the University of California, Davis, where he looked at how cellular spectroscopy and imaging could be used to detect cancer. Upon returning to BU, he decided to build upon what he learned by taking a course on imaging and microscopy with Professor Jerome Mertz (BME).

“What struck me about Professor Mertz from my first interaction with him was how much interest and passion he had for the science he was working on,” explained Mader. “He seemed like one of those people who would continue to do the exact same thing even after winning the lottery because he enjoyed it so much.”

Mader went on to work on his master’s thesis in Mertz’s laboratory, where he worked on improving bioluminescence imaging so that a small group of cells, like a tumor, could be detected without using lasers or X-rays.

“Kevin was great to work with – really creative,” said Mertz. “He could always look at things from different and unexpected perspectives that were really intriguing. I think he’ll make a great professor someday.”

Since completing his master’s, Mader has taken more steps toward eventually becoming a professor, including earning a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Biomechanics from ETH Zürich.

He has also earned a Pioneer Fellowship from the university, which will allow him to work toward pairing microscopes, MRIs and CT-scanners with tools that will turn pictures into meaningful statistics.

“There seems to be sufficient industrial interest. The real challenge will be connecting with the right people at the right times,” he said.

As Mader balances research with teaching, he continues to give his all in both.

“I think one of the best ways to really understand a topic is to have to disseminate it to other people,” he said. “In particular, I enjoy trying to connect abstract concepts like parallel computing to everyday ones like card games with friends.”

Truly committed to being the best teacher he can be, Mader can often be found tweaking his lecture slides minutes before a talk, even though he’d finished preparing weeks before.

Said Kia: “I have no doubt, not even for a second, that he will become a highly effective professor and that his deep passion for research and discovery will be surpassed only by his immense passion for his students.”

Learn more about Mader’s new company, 4Quant.

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)
February 2014

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