Feature - Working in Two Worlds

A young engineering professor adds industry consulting to his busy schedule to help send more relevant messages as a teacher.

By Ray Bert

Photo by Linda CreightonBrian Jennison is an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Loyola College-a Jesuit, mostly liberal-arts school of about 3,200 students in Baltimore, Maryland. Before coming to Loyola, he spent five and a half years at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)-a nonprofit organization that conducts technical programs for the Navy and other governmental organizations-where he did signal processing work on sonar in the Submarine Technology Department.

The 34-year-old Jennison, who is in his third year of teaching, also consults for APL and for Booz Allen & Hamilton, a large international consulting firm with many defense-related contracts. Spending several days with Jennison shows just how trying it can be to balance the demands of two worlds.


7:49 a.m. Wednesday, Loyola
College, Donnelly Science Center

"Consulting makes me a better teacher"

The ringing phone shatters the relative quiet of the small, windowless office where Brian Jennison reviews neatly kept lecture notes for his first class of the day-a signal processing course for electrical engineering seniors. The caller is a Booz Allen engineer currently working on a sensitive government contract, for which the firm has retained the professor's services.

After a brief conversation confirming a meeting the following day, Jennison hangs up. He makes a mental note that he has to read several technical papers at home tonight to be fully prepared to discuss the firm's problem tomorrow. There's no time later today between his Probability & Statistics and Electronics in Communications lectures, meetings with several seniors about their capstone design project, and installing a new motherboard in one of the lab computers. And lunch, somewhere in there.

Scooping his notes and a can of Coke from his desk, striding past the racquetball gear he won't touch until next Tuesday, Jennison heads to class.


8:17 a.m., Classroom 216

"Let me show you that this is true."

Capping his dry-erase marker, Jennison shifts gears in the middle of a lecture on discrete Fourier transforms, takes a seat at the PC set-up in front of the classroom, and begins running some MATLAB demonstrations. As numerical representations of electronic signals confirm the math-intensive derivations covering the board, six senior electrical engineering students groggily take notes.

With a few keystrokes, Jennison flashes one final signal demonstration on the overhead, then rises from the terminal.

"There you go," he says in his rich baritone. "So everything we've talked about the last few weeks-I haven't been lying."


3:15 p.m., Student Lounge

Photo by Linda CreightonJennison, explaining a particularly complicated concept:"I actually get confused by this myself."
Student, aloud, with heavy sarcasm: "That's promising."

Engineers are often rough on one another, and the good-natured ribbing carries over into Jennison's homework help sessions and meetings about capstone design projects. It is those senior projects-essentially mini-master's theses-that energize Jennison most about his teaching. "It is just more interesting to tackle an unknown problem," as opposed to lecturing, he says. One past project involved developing a device to reduce jet noise (or other intrusive sounds) by producing sound waves-signals-that are identical but vibrationally out of phase, in effect canceling out the unwanted noise.

The projects allow Jennison to leverage his industrial experience and show what engineers in the real world do-something that is more difficult to convey in the classroom. Still, he peppers his lectures with examples from industry whenever he can, to help sell his students on the idea that the mathematical means do have practical ends.


5:33 p.m., Jennison's office

After sending the project students on their way to spec-out and purchase a digital signal processing board, installing the motherboard, and running a number of tests in the lab, Jennison finally can pack up and head home. His workday isn't necessarily over, though. He does almost all grading and exam preparation, as well as most of his consulting work, at home. With the resignation of a man lying in a bed of his own making, he observes: "I'm back in that grad-school mode, where any time I'm watching a football game or anything else, there's a book open in front of me, or papers to grade or something."


Thursday a.m., Ellicott City, Md.

Jennison often spends a good portion of every Thursday, his consulting day, at home. While he usually has scads of work to do, the day is much more free-form than one spent on campus, and he is more relaxed. Though he has a small home office on the second floor of his suburban house, he is just as likely to spread out his work on the living room coffee table. On these days, he has more time to reflect on his many responsibilities, and on how, exactly, he ended up as both a professor and a virtual one-man consulting firm.

In 1995, Jennison had an epiphany of sorts while lunching with APL project sponsors and co-workers in the Virginia suburbs just outside of Washington, D.C. "It hit me that this probably wasn't the most important thing in the world and that if I continued down the same path, I was going to spend the next 30 years in these meetings," he says.

Shortly after his lunchtime revelation, thumbing through a trade magazine, he came across Loyola's ad seeking a signal processing specialist, and took the plunge.

"When I told a longtime friend I was becoming a professor, all she said was 'It's about time'," he laughs. The reaction of some of his co-workers was somewhat different: "They thought I was nuts."

Jennison estimates that he currently spends 15 to 20 hours per week doing consulting work. Until this academic year, all of that time had been on APL projects, building on his sonar work. Though he is understandably tight-lipped about the details, this really is Hunt for Red October-type work. "The two overriding concerns are finding the bad guy subs and making sure no one can find ours," he explains.

Some of his academic colleagues may well think he is nuts for his determination to stick with consulting while pursuing tenure.

"It is an added wrench in things," he says, smiling. "But I wanted to continue to do research and interesting things that a small school like Loyola-with limited resources, no full-time graduate students, and only five full-time faculty members in two degree programs-can't provide."

There is another good reason he kept his foot in industry: covering himself. "Getting into academia is risky. If I don't get tenure here for any reason, my academic career is essentially over."
But while consulting allows Jennison to hedge his bets in some ways, it is itself a risk to his academic success. Times and attitudes may be changing, but slowly. Publication of academic research in peer-reviewed journals is still far and away the safest route to tenure. 

"Consulting often doesn't lead to a publication the way academic research does. But," he argues, "it is by its nature a peer review of my skills."

Jennison is fortunate to have a department chair who is very supportive of consulting work-giving all faculty members one day per week with no on-campus responsibilities. Still, some colleages give Jennison mixed signals about pursuing consulting: sure, it's a good idea-after you get tenure. He mostly tunes the naysayers out, though. "Engineering is not about one person working alone in a lab. The really worthwhile projects are multidisciplinary, and consulting is a natural way to do that."

Starting this year, Jennison is pushing that premise a little further with his latest consulting client. Because they work on many projects with strict confidentiality agreements, Booz Allen is not concerned with-and in many ways is averse to-publication.
Part of the reason Jennison is willing to take this chance goes to the heart of his convictions about consulting: that staying in touch with industry helps him do his job better.
"Consulting makes me a better teacher, a more productive researcher, and keeps me up to date in my field," he says firmly. "Most of my students go into industry, not academia."
Not incidental, either, are the financial benefits. "I took a big pay cut when I left industry," Jennison says. "Consulting helps bridge that gap."


1:00 p.m. Thursday, offices of
Booz Allen, Linthicum, Md.

On this Thursday, Jennison's schedule shows only an appointment with Jim Costabile, the Booz Allen project engineer with whom he will be working closely on a national-security-related government project.

At Jennison's request, the project is important but not particularly urgent. "I was upfront with them that during the school year, if there is a conflict-do I write an exam for tomorrow or work on this proposal?-it has to be the exam," he says.

As Jennison and Costabile talk about the scope of the problem-time-frequency distributions, different methods of breaking down and analyzing a wide-band radar signal that current tools can't decipher-the sensitive nature of the work is readily apparent. The conversation stays solidly with the nitty-gritty technical details, trailing off into silence at intervals and leaving the project's larger context unspoken. For Jennison, who holds a high-level security clearance from his APL days, the hush-hush atmosphere is familiar, but something to keep in the front of his mind. If proprietary information gets out and someone else capitalizes on it first, a client could lose a contract or a sponsor.

The two men decide that Jennison should create some simulated radar data and test existing mathematical algorithms for weaknesses (which he later finds). They also discuss how they will attack the actual data once they receive the information from the client.

The meeting with Costabile ends with an assortment of administrative details of the mundane but necessary sort. How does the billing process work? What about a badge? E-mail? Where do I park so I don't get towed?


3:12 p.m., I-295 South

Sitting in his Honda Civic during the drive home from Booz Allen's offices, Jennison starts thinking about tomorrow-back to a "regular" day, as it were. The weekend's plans include a concert at a harborside nightspot in Baltimore with friends, and, of course, more school work, and more reading for and thinking about the BoozlAllen problem.
The tumble of responsibilities and demands on his time do not show outwardly on Jennison. His manner is even, unhurried-he's not the type who responds to pressure with panic. His house seems immaculate ("I'm a bit of a neat freak," he admits), his shirts pressed, his CDs carefully sorted (R.E.M. discs here, Springsteen there).

Despite everything, he manages a social life. He's an avid softball player and an improving racquetball player, thanks to Tuesday afternoon games with a colleague at Loyola. His weekends are "pretty normal" for a young single guy. He likes to travel during the summer, but admits that during the school year, there's precious little time for hobbies.

His general stoicism aside, Jennison does occasionally feel the strain: "Certainly, sometimes you have your doubts: Did I make the right choice?"

Jennison still has more than three years before the tenure decision is made. He says he is "not a big supporter of tenure," because he feels some professors become complacent once their jobs are guaranteed, but he nevertheless admits looking forward to clearing that hurdle. In the meantime, he is unlikely to abandon the consulting work that he obviously enjoys-meaning that the two halves of his professional life are likely to become even more entwined.

"The first few times through a course, I was reluctant to tell stories about how things are used, or to deviate from my notes. I still felt like an industry guy, an outsider," he says. "Now, after a few years, I feel more like a faculty member, but I'm also more comfortable merging the two worlds."

Ray Bert is associate editor of ASEE PRISM.

return to PRISM online