Wireless communications expert takes the helm of the Faculty Senate

Andrea Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering and the chair of the Faculty Senate for 2009-2010, said she decided to pursue a career in engineering – and get a doctorate in the field – after working at a Silicon Valley startup for four years.

L.A. Cicero Andrea Goldsmith

Andrea Goldsmith, professor of electrical engineering and the chair of the Faculty Senate for 2009-2010

As a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Andrea Goldsmith was very good at math – a talent she says she inherited from her late father, a professor of mechanical engineering.

He'd always hoped she'd become an engineer. So when Goldsmith enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley and declared engineering as her major, her dad was thrilled.

Still, she sampled widely from Cal's academic menu – taking classes in languages, literature, politics and history – until her second year, when she had to make a decision: Stick with engineering or switch to political science.

Ironically, the pendulum swung in favor of engineering when Goldsmith enrolled in a course required for political science majors – Politics of Europe.

"The premise was that democracy diminished as you moved from west to east across the map of Europe," Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering recalled during a recent interview in her office on the third floor of the glass-and-steel Packard Building. "I had spent time living in Europe. The class did not seem like a good thing to spend 15 weeks on."

Goldsmith, who convened her first meeting as chair of the Faculty Senate for 2009-2010 in early October with five sharp thwacks of the gavel, said that semester also was memorable for another reason.

The teaching assistant in her algebra class, which was required for engineering majors, was a woman – and a math PhD student to boot. It was the first time as an undergraduate that Goldsmith had encountered a woman with those credentials.

"There was a lot of subtle bias against women in math, science and engineering at the time," Goldsmith said, adding that women still account for a woefully small percentage of engineering students at American universities.

"Having a role model – someone who showed me that women could succeed – really helped me make the decision to stay in engineering," she said. "Also, I was getting more interested in the classes and doing well. I decided to get a degree in engineering and then decide what I would do next."

Working in Silicon Valley

The next step was a four-year stint as a systems engineer at a Silicon Valley defense communications startup.

"I wanted to see the application of the theory I'd learned in school," said Goldsmith, who graduated from Cal with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1986. "Also, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in engineering. I thought I'd try it out and then decide if I wanted to get an MBA or a law degree."

The startup, which has since been absorbed by other companies, was developing multiple antenna systems that could electronically point in the direction of incoming signals.

"Interestingly, these multiple antenna systems were a precursor to one of the hottest trends in wireless system design today, multiple-input multiple-output technology, which was the basis for the company I co-founded in 2006 and the topic of my second textbook, MIMO Wireless Communications," Goldsmith said. "I was very lucky to get exposed to this in my first job as a fresh engineer."

She said the work – finding the right algorithms, designing and building a multiple antenna system, setting it up on wooden blocks in the company parking lot and testing it – was challenging. And exhilarating.

"I ended up falling in love with engineering and going back for a graduate degree," she said.

Back to school

Stanford rejected her application for graduate school, but Cal invited her back.

Her adviser was electrical engineering Professor Pravin P. Varaiya, who was researching control systems for automated highways, under the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) Program. Launched in 1986, the program was a collaboration between the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the university's Institute of Transportation Studies.

"Caltrans was investigating automated highways and cars with automated control systems that would communicate with the freeway via wireless communications," Goldsmith said. "You would drive onto the freeway, take your hands off the steering wheel, and your car would join a platoon of vehicles moving at high speed along a highway. When you got to your final destination, it would spit you out of the system. Obviously, you would need a wireless communications system with high reliability."

First teaching job

After getting a PhD in electrical engineering in 1994, Goldsmith faced another big decision. Move to the East Coast and teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or head south and teach at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

She made the choice – Caltech – the week before she married Arturo Salz, who had graduated from Stanford in 1993 with a PhD in electrical engineering and was working at a startup in Silicon Valley.

Goldsmith said Caltech, where she taught wireless communications, was a wonderful place to be an assistant professor.

"It was a small and very supportive department," she said. "I liked all my colleagues. The university was very well funded; all the incoming graduate students had funding so you didn’t have to scramble to get them funding."

Stanford beckons

After four years at Caltech, Goldsmith was ready for a change. And Stanford had an opening in its Department of Electrical Engineering for a wireless communications professor.

"It took them a while to hire me," she said. "I like to tell this story: I was pregnant with my son [Daniel, now 12] when I applied, and I was pregnant with my daughter [Nicole, now 10] when I came here, and they're almost two years apart."

She began teaching at Stanford in 1999. Goldsmith became an associate professor in 2002 and a full professor in 2007. (Her husband is now chief scientist at Synopsys Inc., an electronic design automation company in Mountain View.)

"From day one, I was so happy I came here, because Stanford was such an exciting, dynamic place in engineering and other fields, especially with its proximity to Silicon Valley," she said.

"It seemed like a place you could do anything you wanted to and with anyone you wanted to across a wide range of disciplines. It was an entrepreneurial place. The word I use is non-complacent. You have all these people with amazing accomplishments behind them, and they're looking forward, asking 'what exciting thing can I do next?'"

In the summer of 2006, Goldsmith answered that question by taking a leave of absence from Stanford to co-found Quantenna Communications Inc., which is producing a family of silicon chipsets designed for high-speed, wireless high-definition video home networking. She was the chief technology officer of the Fremont startup until returning to Stanford in 2008.

"When I teach my wireless class now I bring in a lot of things that I learned from the experience of starting a company and seeing some of the challenges of building a product," said Goldsmith, author of Wireless Communications, a university textbook published in 2005 by Cambridge University Press. "It also changed my perspective on some of the things I might like to investigate from a research perspective."

Engineering is creative

Goldsmith said she got the creative side of her genetic makeup from her mother, who drew cartoons for Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. The animated cartoon shows, produced in the 1960s, featured Rocky the flying squirrel and Bullwinkle the moose, as well as Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov, spies for the fictional nation of Pottsylvania.

"Some people say that Natasha was modeled a little bit after my mom, who was a knockout black-haired lady," she said.

Goldsmith said she loves the creative side of engineering.

"You start out with a blank piece of paper and a problem that you want to solve for people, and you have all of the technology in the world at your fingertips to try to solve it," she said. "It's a very challenging, creative endeavor. The problems have gotten harder and the technology has gotten more powerful, so it just gets more and more exciting over time."