Alice Cline Parker is Dean’s Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California. Her BioRC group was the first group to demonstrate the use of nanotechnology in artificial neurons and the first group to incorporate astrocyte cells (a cell in the brain that interacts with neurons) in artificial neuron designs.
You entered engineering decades ago when there were few women engineers. How did that happen?
I was always interested in science, motivated by my father, a biochemist who coinvented the first method to synthesize vitamin B1. I was influenced by Marie Curie and Jane Goodall. When I needed financial aid to attend college, an engineering scholarship suggested by my physics teacher (a retired Naval officer) provided the funding, and so my interest in science focused on electrical engineering. Family, role models and teachers were all critical to my career path. Financial need pulled me into engineering where there was funding and a strong job market.
The next time you speak with a young female researcher who shows passion for STEM, what would you most want her to know?
Plan for a future where you can have financial independence and can support your family. Study what interests you the most, what keeps you motivated, and what triggers your natural curiosity. Try doing some science or engineering, not just studying about it in classes, by doing lab work, or mathematical modeling or computer simulations. Let your motivation pull you in the direction you will go, not what others tell you that you should do. Know that you have strong capabilities to get as far as you have gone, and be confident that you can achieve your goals. Your inner strength will surprise you!
Could you briefly describe your research interests, or current project?
For many years, I researched synthesis software that autonomously designs computers and other digital hardware, and was made a Fellow of the IEEE for this work. About 13 years ago I performed a full stop to this research to devote full time to research on electronic circuits (also called neuromorphic circuits) that model the brain. This interested me for my entire career and I felt such a strong pull that I could not ignore it any longer. Initially, I felt it was an indulgence, something to amuse me in my senior years as a professor. Almost immediately, I obtained funding, and it has turned into a productive project that has graduated 9 PhD students, with several more due to graduate this summer. Collaboration with a colleague produced the first electronic synapse built with a carbon nanotube transistor, and the first project to demonstrate electronic circuits that include astrocytes (a different sort of brain cell) along with neurons. Now we are deeply involved in a collaborative project that contains electronic neurons that learn new behavior without forgetting existing skills. Pushing forward with something that required me to learn new fields (nanotechnology and neuroscience) at age 58 gave me such confidence that I no longer doubt what I can master and achieve. The imposter syndrome doubts are gone. Giving women this confidence in STEM very early is critically important to success in STEM in later life.
Alice Cline Parker is Dean’s Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Univ. of Southern California. She obtained her BS and Ph.D. from N.C. State University and an MSEE from Stanford University. She began her academic career on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. At USC, as professor in Electrical Engineering, she continued synthesis research, and showed that her software could produce a chip design from a high-level specification of required behavior in 48 hours from inception to final manufacturing plan. She began artificial brain research in 2006. Her BioRC group was the first group to demonstrate the use of nanotechnology in artificial neurons and the first group to incorporate astrocyte cells (a cell in the brain that interacts with neurons) in artificial neuron designs. She is a Fellow of the IEEE, an awardee for teaching in the Viterbi School of Engineering, an ASEE award winner, a Hall of Fame award from the ECE Department at NCSU and an awardee for volunteer work done for the Josh Groban Foundation (now the Find your Light Foundation) and the South Central Scholars. Her research has been funded by SRC, DARPA, NSF, IBM and other organizations. She is the author of over 180 refereed publications.