We visited Bram Nauta, professor in Integrated Circuit Designing and head of the research group Integrated Circuit Design(ICD). The University of Twente is really honoured to have Prof. Nauta as a reknowned professor here. There is continuous advancements that are happening in the field of ICD thanks to Bram. He has received a lot of Titles including awards such as Simon Stevin Meester Award which is the largest Dutch National prize for Technical Achievements. Here is a small interview on what he has to say about his success.
We started the interview with Bram’s background and asked him if he could shortly take us back to his youth and tell us what encouraged him to do Electrical Engineering.
‘When I was a kid, I was always playing with technical toys like Mechano the ones with metal strips that you can screw with all the holes like cranes or ships … I like that… I had a friend in elementary school who had an elder brother who was studying physics in the university here, and he built an FM radio transmitter. That was like a printed circuit board that could work as a radio transmitter. It was like a microphone where you could speak and hear the voice. So, we took the PCBs and wrote down all the components. There was like a long thing that I didn’t know at that time was a resistor, blue-green-red and the number BF178, so we went to the shop and described the thing without understanding how it works and then the circuit worked. And that was so cool.. At first the circuit didn’t work because it was on the wrong frequency apparently, because I had to make an inductor by myself and it wasn’t a real copy. And then after sometime the neighbour came to me and said “Bram I can hear you on my TV” but that was good, especially since it was working although at the wrong frequency and then I found it so cool and I wanted to know how it works and who invented this circuit. So at the age of 11/12 I knew I wanted to do electrical engineering, didn’t know what exactly but I knew I wanted to deal with circuits. So, I was really young and it was just me being curious. I designed my own circuit by just connecting to the music and making a flashing light. For that, I decided to use a transistor. I didn’t know how a transistor works although, so I just took a lamp and some music and just tried every possible combination and then it worked, the light flashed on the music. By literally doing this, I figured the most suitable combination to have a proper output. My whole room was flashing with the light and then all my friends were very curious about it and kept asking me to do something similar for them as well. And then people also came to me asking me to repair stuff for them. People who were disposing off their TVs were now told by my friends ‘O you could give it to Bram, he can do something with that.’ So then with all the components that I had collected from the other TVs, I would manage to fix the TVs. That’s when I really thought I was indeed born an Electrical Engineer.’
What did your titles enable you to do that you would otherwise not have done?
‘The titles indeed open a lot of doors.
I had a Master’s degree that allowed me to further do a PhD. Being a master student, I could go to a company, but I felt that I was still young… 23 years. So, I decided to go do a PhD and that was when I invented the ‘Nauta circuit’ that made me kind of famous and all the companies then wanted me. Now, due to the addition of the PhD, I could seriously negotiate my position in the company (even with money). This was not only because of the title I now had, but also because I did prove my worth.
The University then wanted me back, so I negotiated to be a full professor, which I was granted. Thus, resulting in me being the youngest full professor at the age of 34.
But apart from the title, the age was also important especially since I had to negotiate with companies where in the people had much higher superiority, with grey hair and a beard. This is something that I can now establish since I am now around the same age as the people I negotiate with. So, back then I basically had the title but I didn’t have the age.
Titles do help, they open a lot of doors, but it is not automatic. You still do have to prove yourself. But if you apply for funding it helps!
I was the president for the Chip Designers of IEEE. I am a distinguished professor and I received the Simons Stevin Meester Award which helps with the research. Although, I do not use the titles extensively, all of these do help a lot. Like being a Distinguished Professor is already much better than being Professor. If you have a reputation of your own, it is already a much higher chance of you reaching somewhere.
The highest title is my PhD. It helped to get my position in Philips with total freedom. Without PhD, I really wouldn’t have had so much of freedom, they would have given me a fixed project, especially since the risk of messing up would have been much higher.
Even now, companies come here to ask for help when they need. And I put a PhD student in charge of it and together we come up with some really nice conclusions.’
Would you say that titles are more important to academic research rather than working in corporations?
What do you like the most about your current job?
‘The freedom… I like the freedom to research whatever I want. I like working with young people, students. So, I like to educate people, like when they come from high school they do not have too much knowledge about circuits and I want to try new things that I haven’t tried before. I like teaching, I assist the Masters students, the PhDs and I also teach the Bachelors. I basically like educating people, making stuff and making sure that companies use it. I don’t like to publish, like for fundamental physics, where you find some quantum things that are not of any practical use. I like when people use what I or my students invent. I can then proudly say that the chip designed by us is actually in your phone. It might take 5 years but it still is there. That gives me a feeling of contributing something to the world.’
Where do you think the future of ICD will take us?
‘I think we already have a lot of companies that come here since we are here, but I expect more companies to come, and I want to be the world centre of analog circuits. So that if companies need something, they go to UTwente and then, they find one of the companies which are here, with my students, and they bring the work to here. ’
What is the reason you decided to work in UT rather than any other university?
‘I was born here, in Hengelo. I also lived in Twente and I like Twente, I did my Masters and PhD in Twente and then I went to Eindhoven, to Philips and I liked it too. But, while I was a PhD student, during my first year, there was a part time professor, who was supposed to supervise me, but he did not like to be a professor, so just when I became a PhD student, he said goodbye, I do not want to do this. So, I was without supervision. I had to work on my own, which I liked but I had no technical discussions with my supervisor because there was no supervisor. I loved it, but this is not a good situation. They tried to find an analog professor but they could not find somebody. While I was in Philips, they still had not found a professor. After I was already working in the company for seven years, they asked me, “Bram, why don’t you come?”. I thought, “Maybe, this can be nice.”. At that time, all the other professors who were teaching at the University were really old and not doing much scientific work but mainly teaching. There was no reputation of the group. And then I thought, “Okay, these are old people, maybe I don’t like that but they will retire within four years. And then I can appoint anyone I like.” So I decided that I would join and further wait until they retire. Then I can get some Philips people here, like Anne-Johan Annema and Ronan van der Zee. Thus, I got my own team: young people. Then I said “Okay, let’s do some cool stuff.” and then we expanded the group. Now, we are the one of the world leading groups. At the start, there was nothing. There were really just people before their retirement, teaching first year courses and that was it. And now, we are one of the leading research groups, and that’s what I like. I like building up from nothing. It’s all done by strength. ’
Your bond with Scintilla started long ago and still continues to get stronger and stronger. Would you like to say something about this bond, that you think the rest of the Scintilla members should know about?
‘When I was this 34 year old young professor, all the students were like “ WOW, young guy, that’s cool. Let’s drink beer and let’s party”. So, when they went for the first study tour, they wanted me with them, because they needed a formal supervisor and I was about their age. So, they were like 24 and I was 34 so there is only 10 years of difference. We were like brothers. We would party together. The first study tour was to England. I was there for three full weeks and it was really so much fun. The students liked that a lot too, we had fun and then next time they asked me again. So, every study tour since 1998, I was there. Except one, when my visa failed. I was always happy with students and we liked each other and they kept asking me for study tours. I made a lot of things for Scintilla so whenever they needed room or a new piano, I tried to find money to help them like the piano near Starbucks.’
What encouraging words of advice do you have, to all students, especially for the ones in Scintilla and EE ?
‘Do what you like, be passionate and never stop learning. Your diploma is just the beginning of a new life! It’s not the end goal but rather the beginning of something new. Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do. Make sure that you do fun stuff and keep learning, stay curious. Dig deeper. If you don’t understand things, take your time. Dig deeper to understand the technical problem, then you can invent things. Never stop exploring. Keep digging, keep searching, keep finding things, then you never get bored.’