Staying Up to Speed

An experienced professor is humbled by his colleague’s knowledge and caring


[The following essay was written by Peter Herczfeld about his colleague, Edwin Gerber, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Drexel University.]


I met Ed Gerber nearly 50 years ago at the home of a mutual friend in Philadelphia. Ed and I were both doctoral students in electrical engineering at the time. I was at the University of Minnesota; he was at Penn but was already teaching at the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University). A few years later, when I joined the Drexel faculty, Ed and I taught a few undergraduate courses together.

But soon our careers diverged. I became heavily involved with research in high frequency electronics and photonics and ceased teaching undergraduates. The more research projects I undertook, the more graduate students I acquired, and the more I was obliged to generate grant proposals to support them. I was also managing budgets, publishing scholarly papers, attending professional meetings, serving on committees, and administering projects. I had less and less time to spend in the laboratory doing experiments.

One day, two decades ago, as I was showing a visitor around my lab, I stopped at a particular experiment and decided to fine-tune it in order to make a point.  But I achieved the opposite: I detuned the set-up and, in the process, almost ruined the experiment. The next day, a delegation of my graduate students appeared in my office and politely requested that I refrain from touching their equipment. From then on, I continued my research and mentoring of graduate students, discussing the intricate details of their experiments, but never touched their instruments. (I have since learned that I’m not the only senior researcher to have been asked to adopt this hands-off policy.)

Meanwhile, Ed continued to teach undergraduates and to develop laboratory courses for them incorporating the newest electronic equipment.

Last term, I was asked to take over one of Ed’s lab courses when he left for a long-overdue vacation. I panicked at the prospect. I had not dealt with low-frequency devices for at least four decades, and since that time, the field of electronics had continually reinvented itself as more versatile and less costly electronic chips became available. I voiced my concern to Ed, but he told me not to worry. He would teach me what I needed to know.

And this is precisely what he did. He gave me a comprehensive description of every lab, complete with theoretical background, computer-aided design support, and a compilation of detailed procedures. He spent hours explaining the smallest nuances of the experiments. He called me at night and during the weekend to warn me of common mistakes students might make in the lab, and he sent me a plethora of emails with more detailed advice. Then he grilled me to make certain I had absorbed his lessons. He even called me as he was boarding his cruise ship to see if I had received his latest email with a last-minute tip.

Ed was making sure that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself in that undergraduate class—at least, that’s what I thought at first. Then, I had a revelation: it wasn’t really about me at all; it was about the students. Ed was making sure that they were well served, and that meant bringing me up to speed.

I taught that course, and as I did so, grew even more impressed by Ed Gerber’s mastery of the new equipment and experimental techniques. He had been quietly serving his students for more than half a century, and only now, filling in for him, could I fully appreciate his contribution.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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