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“The Choice to Teach Was Simple”

Alfred Hero (EE ’80)

Alfred Hero (EE ’80)
Alfred Hero (EE ’80)

Alfred Hero (EE ’80) likes to simplify things. Both for his students and for the sake of his research.

As an engineering professor, Hero aims to minimize uncertainty in the world by seeking out statistical variations and similarities in large databases. For instance, one area that he applies his research to is gene expression analysis.

“In gene expression analysis there may be random variations of the samples due to environmental or other uncontrolled factors,” Hero said. “This variability can make it difficult to accurately correlate the expression of the tens of thousands of genes across treatments.”

The high computational load and the poor management of uncertainty in such models are the “principal difficulties” in his research area.

Since graduating from Boston University, Hero went on to work at the University of Michigan where he conducts his research today. He hadn’t always expected to become a professor, but his interest in both physics and electrical engineering set the stage for his journey toward academia.

“My physics training taught me the importance of seeking to understand everything about first principles,” Hero said. “My electrical engineering training taught me to question the practicality of a concept.”

Hero arrived somewhat late to the realm of electrical engineering. In his third year at BU, Hero made the switch from physics.

“I saw BU Engineering as a place that had the flexibility to accommodate my broad academic interests and equally prepare me for a career in the engineering industry or for graduate school,” said Hero.

As an undergrad, Hero also had a job as a computer test technician at Raytheon Data Systems, a defense contractor of the United States, and he could have stayed with the company after graduation. Raytheon needed engineers. But he decided, instead, to attend graduate school.

“I wasn’t intending to become a professor,” Hero said. “I initially came into BU thinking I would end up as an engineer or a physicist at a company like Raytheon. But it was this desire to go deeper into information sciences that I decided to go to Princeton for graduate school.”

Hero partially credits his ambition to attend graduate school to his senior project adviser, Professor Alan Desrochers, who remembers Hero fondly.

“It was clear that [Hero] was destined for an excellent career,” Desochers said. “He went on for a Ph.D. at Princeton and the next time I saw Al Hero’s name was in the late 80s as a faculty member at the University of Michigan.”

Thirty years later, Hero still is still at Michigan, in addition to serving as the Digiteo Chair at the Digiteo Research Institute in France. Though his decision to become a professor was a difficult one at the time, he thinks staying in academia was the right choice.

Said Hero: “I realized how fun it was to ‘learn for life,’ do research, and teach.”

-Nate Goldman (COM ’11)
January 2011