A question posted on LinkedIn Caltech group prompted me to write this post. The question was "In the spirit of Thanksgiving, are there any professors that you'd like to thank for making an impact on your life?"
Two professors at Caltech have had profound impact on my life and career - my thesis adviser Jim and my postdoctoral mentor Wolfgang. With trust, Jim trained me to be an independent, self reliant researcher and thinker, which is a benefit of a life time. Wolfgang's impact on my life and career was more direct, and equally lasting.
I joined Wolfgang's group at the most difficult time of my life - I could not find a job after graduation from Caltech, not even a postdoctoral position. Lily and I were separated because I had to take a visiting associate position thousands miles away. After about 4 months at the visiting associate position, Wolfgang had a postdoctoral position open. I applied. He telephone interviewed me and visited with professors who taught me at Caltech. Then he offered me the position. This offer was a lifeline to me and Lily. It was also a big boost to my self confidence. It was a critical turning point of my life and career.
Wolfgang is well known for being strict with students and postdoctoral associates. I like him that way because he is strict and fair - he tells you what he thinks with no sugar coating. With my performance at his group he provided me many opportunities such as writing proposal for usage of San Diego Super Computer, teaching classes in his place, supervising his graduate students and working on consulting projects, in addition to research. All those opportunities helped me to grow professionally - as an independent researcher, a good presenter, and a good communicator.
Working closely with Wolfgang, I got a chance to learn how he, a world class researcher and engineer, approaches research and engineering problems. His detailed explanation of his research proposal significantly improved my comprehension of what research was, how one came up new ideas to work on. I was frequently intrigued by his insights to a test or analysis when graduate students presented their findings. I tried to emulate him and I believe that I have found my own ways to gain insights and intuitions on engineering problems.
Another life long benefit from the close association with him is that I am not intimidated technically by anybody in my field or beyond: I enjoy and appreciate insightful, elegant or otherwise excellent research work, and criticize inferior, incorrect work no matter whose work they are.
Without Wolfgang's help, guidance and mentoring, I would not have been where I am today.
I am thankful!