Frank Barnes: Fifty Years and Counting

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Frank Barnes

Electrical Engineering

Sitting down with Frank Barnes is an education—not only in electro-magnetics, energy, and other areas of engineering, but also in history.

Celebrating his 50th anniversary of continuous teaching on the CU-Boulder faculty last fall, Barnes has been a driver in numerous initiatives that have shaped the university, including the formation of engineering programs at the Denver and Colorado Springs campuses, the launch of the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program at CU-Boulder, and the establishment of the Colorado Advanced Technology Institute, which supported science and technology programs at several state schools during the 1980s and ‘90s.

He shares these and other memories through a series of stories that reflect the success—and the fun—he has had throughout his career.

“We started out working on masers and lasers,” he recalls. “We built some in the early 1960s. I had a student, Ken Lang, who was interested in brain waves, and we performed the first single-cell surgery on a rabbit embryo. It was published in Nature (in 1964) and we had 500 requests for reprints.”

From there, his interest in bioelectromagnetics, the use of electromagnetic fields to probe biological function and develop diagnostics and therapeutic instruments, was born. At 77 years old, he is both a CU distinguished professor and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and he has done influential work on the biological effects of exposure to the electric and magnetic fields from power lines, including participating in a study showing a correlation between the location of residences and the incidence of childhood leukemia.

Fifty years of experience says he’s probably right.

He is past president of the BioElectroMagnetics Society and recently chaired a National Research Council panel on research priorities related to the potential health effects of exposure to radio frequency energy from the use of wireless technology like in cell phones.

Here’s another story: Working with urologist Ron Pfister at the CU Medical School, former master’s student Rob Schwartz and Barnes developed a biomedical basket for the removal of kidney stones. Called the Pfister Schwartz stone retriever, the device consists of several threaded wires that can be manipulated by a doctor to grasp and extract the stones. Thousands of the devices have been sold, and Barnes himself was one of the beneficiaries when he had a bout with kidney stones about six years after the device was invented.

Barnes, who earned his PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford, holds 13 patents for inventions ranging from superconductors to a spring ice skate, and has supervised more than 230 graduate students on a wide range of subjects from optical fiber design to rural telephone systems for third world countries. He was chair of the electrical and computer engineering department for 17 years and served as interim dean of the college in 1980–81. Last fall, he taught a section of the First-Year Engineering Projects course and loved it.

His ability to see the big picture and to work with people from all walks of life may be the common thread—and his greatest legacy at CU-Boulder.

CU-Boulder’s Interdisciplinary Telecommunication Program, which Barnes co-founded with political science professor George Codding in 1971, earned Barnes the National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize, a $500,000 award for educational innovation. The program has graduated hundreds of industry leaders worldwide with a mastery of the engineering, business, legal, and policy aspects of the telecommunications field.

In 2004, Barnes applied the same principles to developing an educational certificate in utility engineering that incorporates regulatory and business issues into the curriculum. As an active member of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, he works with students from a wide range of backgrounds to help integrate renewable energy sources into the power grid.

Jonah Levine, a wildlife biologist who earned his master’s degree through the telecommunications program in the area of green energy storage solutions, recalls that Barnes set up four graduate students from different backgrounds to work in one office and they are all the better for it.

“Each of us had a different perspective on each issue we faced and working together either made our disparate views come together into a consensus opinion—or at least we heard the arguments because we were all in the same small space,” Levine says. “I am lucky to count all of the other students and Frank as close colleagues, friends, and mentors.”

Barnes is mutually complimentary. “I’ve had a group of fun students, which is one of the reasons I’m still around,” he says matter-of-factly. “The Gordon Prize (which he won in 2004) is the other—it gave me the money to do things.”

These days, he also expects to receive a $1 million federal grant to investigate security measures for a smart grid, a new communication system for controlling the delivery of electricity using two-way digital technology to save energy and reduce costs. But he notes that getting funding for graduate student research, especially “on-time” when it has been promised, is difficult.

“The more original the idea, the harder it is to get money for it,” he says. “I think that as a professor, you should be able to make your own decisions about what ideas to follow and have some funds to see if at least a few of them make sense.”

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