Barnes photographed for a 2010 story in the CU Engineering alumni magazine about his 50th anniversary as a faculty member.
Distinguished Professor Emeritus Frank Barnes’ family moved a lot when he was a child. He estimates that he lived in nine states and attended 13 schools before graduating high school.
But for the past 63 years, he’s called just one place home — the University of Colorado Boulder.
Barnes, who turns 90 on July 31, is still an active faculty member in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. On a given day, you can find him advising two graduate students, supervising his postdoctoral researcher, collaborating on a research project with a faculty member at CU Anschutz and “rattling cages” across the university on topics he’s passionate about.
“My grandson jokes that I flunked the class on how to retire,” he said.
Barnes launched his academic career in 1959 with an interview process that would likely be the envy of any prospective faculty member today.
“I got a phone call from Harlan Palmer who was chair (of electrical engineering). He says, ‘I understand you're looking for a job. Have you thought about teaching?'" Barnes said. “I said no. He said, ‘How about having lunch with the faculty tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ After that, they offered me a job as an associate professor two years out of grad school.”
Since joining the CU Boulder faculty, Barnes has served as department chair of electrical, computer and energy engineering twice and spent some time as acting dean of the college. In 1997, he was named a distinguished professor, the highest rank awarded to tenure-track faculty.
He estimates he’s averaged about one PhD graduate per year and said providing opportunities for students who weren’t doing well is one of his proudest achievements.
“The thing I feel best about is that I've been able to make it possible for a lot of people to do things that they couldn't have done otherwise,” Barnes said. “Both students and also the faculty. I've been able to make it possible for them to get their research project or get a lab or sometimes find students that fit.”
He has several stories of helping students who were struggling in their studies.
“I just took time to work with them and found out what they were doing and why they weren't doing as well as they might,” he said. “I would just spend time with them and managed to move them forward.”
One former student now runs a research lab in Pakistan that developed a way to look for contaminants in the country’s food supply. Another invented new kind of hearing aid that cuts down on background noise in crowded spaces.
As department chair, Barnes was instrumental in building the research and graduate program in electrical engineering. At the time, the department mainly provided undergraduate education, so he decided to change the way they did recruiting.
“I took some of our recruiting money, and I made one trip up and down the east coast and another one up and down the west coast and invited three people out for interviews,” Barnes said. “That's how we got started hiring assistant professors.”
In 1971, after a conversation with John Richardson, Barnes co-founded CU Boulder’s Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program with George Codding, a professor in political science. The program grew out of the academic and political environment of the late 1960s, as Barnes was exploring ways to boost enrollment in engineering.
“At that time, students considered engineering to be undesirable and believed technology was responsible for the Vietnam War and most of the rest of the world’s ill,” Barnes recalled in a program memoir published in the 1990s.
ITP was one of the first programs of its kind to blend technical education with sociology and law, becoming a very influential and highly ranked program before its rebranding several years ago as a program in technology, cybersecurity and policy.
Barnes’ research interests have varied throughout the years, from building lasers and flash lamps to super conductors and avalanche photo diodes. But he’s always had an underlying interest in bioengineering.
Barnes did some of the early work on lasers that led to helping understand how laser eye surgery worked. Over the past decade, he has been taking a deep research dive into how the Earth’s electromagnetic field affects the human body, which he said could have implications for treatment of cancer and other health conditions.
One of those projects is with John Repine at CU Anschutz, who’s conducting rodent trials to replicate an experiment they did that decreased damage to the lungs from respiratory diseases by controlling the magnetic field.
Barnes said it’s been a challenging field because experimental results have varied so widely that many researchers have essentially given up. But he theorizes that it comes down to controlling feedback and repair systems in the body, including many oscillating systems that he compared to pushing someone on a playground swing.
“If I push the swing at the top, I accelerate. If I push in the same direction at the bottom, I slow it down,” he said. “If I push it at a different frequency, sometimes I’m accelerating, sometimes I'm slowing it down. Turns out that same model applies to oscillating systems in the body.”
Repine called Barnes a “terrific collaborator” and said their project has the potential to help treat and prevent acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a highly fatal consequence of COVID-19 infection.
“He brings great wisdom, experience and enthusiasm to a project. His intensity is well offset by his self-effacing sense of humor,” Repine said. “He is focused on finding the truth and is exceptional about giving everyone a chance to participate.”
While Barnes isn’t sure how much longer he will continue in his work, he’s grateful to have been able to contribute in so many different ways.
“I enjoy what I’m doing, and it’s nice to be able to help people accomplish things,” he said. “I feel very fortunate.”
Barnes and his wife, Gay, chat with guests at a backyard BBQ in celebration of his 90th birthday. The Barneses have been married for 67 years.