This 2018 interview with Dr. Tsu-Jae King Liu, Dean of UC Berkeley's College of Engineering, was done by Angela Zheng.
Dr. Tsu-Jae King Liu earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. After various industry and academic roles, she is now the Dean of UC Berkeley's College of Engineering, and the first woman to ever hold that position. Liu is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. She was interviewed by Angela Zheng in the fall of 2018.
You studied electrical engineering from college to graduate school. What led you to engineering?
I became interested in engineering because my father studied electrical engineering when he was in college. Although he didn’t end up becoming an engineer (he became a geophysicist who studied earthquakes) many of his former college classmates ended up working as engineers in Silicon Valley. During their annual reunion gatherings, I got a sense from visiting their homes and workplaces that they were doing very well professionally, so I knew that engineers made a reasonable living, i.e., that engineering was a practical career choice. I also learned that engineers literally design and build the world we live in: from transportation systems, buildings and the infrastructure needed for cities, computers and communication devices, to medical instrumentation. These all use electrical devices or electronic systems, which made it clear to me that the work of electrical engineers is beneficial to society. I realized that even if I wasn't interested in being a medical doctor, I could still help people by developing new technologies and devices to improve the health and well-being of people. Those are the main things that attracted me to electrical engineering versus other fields of engineering.
Why did you choose electrical engineering over other fields of engineering?
Well, I originally considered chemical engineering because it was the most popular field of engineering when I was a student. In my freshman year of college, I took an introductory chemical engineering course and was intimidated by the partial differential equations. I later took an introductory course in mechanical engineering along with an introductory course in electrical engineering. I found electrical engineering to be most interesting because of its breadth of applications. Also, it has a wide range of specialty areas spanning hardware and software. (Computer science largely grew out of electrical engineering as computing devices became more capable. Engineers had to develop programming languages beyond machine code and assembly language, as well as new algorithms and instruction sets together with new computer chip architectures.)
“If you try something and it doesn’t work out, don’t assume that it is because you’re not cut out for it.”
Where there any role models in your life that you looked up to?
There is probably not a single person whom I regard as a quintessential role model for me; many people have inspired and set an example for me in various ways. In terms of role models for pursuing science and engineering, there is, of course, my father. He studied electrical engineering, and he ended up being a scientist. There were lots of other role models as well: professors from whom I took courses and managers in industry for whom I had great respect. I believe that there’s always something good you can find in any person, i.e., you can learn something from any person – this includes learning from others’ mistakes. So my philosophy is just to learn from all the people with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you went deep into electrical engineering?
I wish I had taken more advantage of various resources available to me. I was quite introverted as a student, so I didn't get to know a lot of my classmates and hang out with them. I was not active in many student organizations either. Looking back, this might have been because I was (seemingly) the only female in my engineering courses, but I think that shouldn’t have been a barrier. If I had spent time with my classmates to study and work on projects together, I think I would have learned more effectively and quickly, and have an even more extensive network of connections than I do today. I believe it’s very important nowadays for students to learn how to interact productively with other people, inside and outside of the classroom, because a lot of work in engineering is team-based.
What preparations do middle and high school students need to have for a career in engineering?
It helps to have a good grasp of fundamental concepts in math and science, a curiosity to learn about things, and an attitude of always learning new things and trying to figure out ways to solve problems. There are always little problems that arise each day. Ask yourself “How can I apply what I have learned to potentially come up with a solution to this annoying little problem?” Also, developing resilience to failure is important. If you try something and it doesn’t work out, don’t assume that it is because you’re not cut out for it. Learn from every experience to expand your knowledge and capabilities. If at first you don’t succeed, try again!
“My philosophy is just to learn from all the people with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years.”
Is there anything in particular that’s important to serve as a Dean of Berkeley Engineering?
It’s important for a Dean to be able to relate to the experiences of students and professors, and to show appreciation for the staff. The staff who help to advise the students and support the faculty are integral to the success of our educational and research programs. A Dean should be able to relate to the people for whom he/she is responsible and understand their challenges and opportunities. I have learned from my experience as a regular faculty member, and also as an administrative leader. I was in charge of a shared research lab, as Faculty Director of the Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory (Nanolab) and prior to that the Microfabrication Laboratory (Microlab). I also served as Associate Dean for Research, helping to support efforts across multiple departments to raise new funding for research, which is important for sustaining excellence as a top research institution. As Vice Provost for Academic and Space Planning, I became familiar with how the university functions administratively. I think it’s important for the College of Engineering to function very well and smoothly as an integral part of the Berkeley campus. To this end it is important for me to develop collegial and collaborative relationships with other deans on campus. Our students don’t only take classes in the College of Engineering; they also take classes in other colleges. Likewise, our faculty don’t only do research in collaboration with engineering faculty; many of them collaborate with people outside of engineering. The success of the campus depends on the success of College of Engineering, and vice versa. Serving as Vice Provost strengthened my ability to work collaboratively with people from all parts of the campus for the benefit of the College.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing for fun?
Although I’m an introvert, I have always enjoyed spending time with people. In my job, I interact with a lot of people, mostly in meetings which can involve long periods of sitting. I try to get in some exercise by walking around the campus; ideally I would hold walking meetings, i.e. have conversations with people and get to know them while walking, to “kill two birds with one stone” so to speak. Exercising outdoors allows me to enjoy the lovely scenery and beautiful weather that we have in the San Francisco Bay Area. I enjoy playing all sorts of team sports for fun rather than for competition.
“Engineering as a field of study can prepare you well to succeed no matter whether your career is in engineering, business, medicine, or the financial world.”
To sum things up, is there anything you would like to say to all the girls reading this interview on the EngineerGirl site?
Engineering as a field of study can prepare you well to succeed no matter whether your career is in engineering, business, medicine, or the financial world. (There are many skills you learn during the course of an engineering education that can be beneficial for other careers.) Although my initial attraction to engineering was based on financial considerations, I have come to appreciate the role of engineering in improving quality of life in modern society, to make our world a better place. Engineering as a profession certainly can be very rewarding. Consider that our society is comprised of individuals of different racial, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, who have a range of political and religious views, and differences in gender and sexuality, age and physical ability. People from every segment of society can contribute to and benefit from endeavors in engineering. It is critical for women as well as men to participate in developing the solutions that will shape our world in the future.
To learn more about Dean Liu, visit her faculty page at Berkeley Engineering.