Aaron Becker

9/29/2014 Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS alums are some of the most interesting people we know. To celebrate them, we’ve decided to ask them questions both serious and fun. Here, you’ll find their Ten Answers.

Aaron Becker (PhD ‘12) is a postdoctoral research fellow in pediatric cardiac bioengineering at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. After his undergraduate electrical and computer engineering degree at Iowa State, Becker came to Illinois to study robotics, earning his master’s, then his doctorate on the subject of controlling swarms of robots with a single control signal. He uses the website SwarmControl.net to study how humans interact with robot swarms.

When he’s not pursuing his research, he brings home magnets for his boys Logan, Lincoln, and Luke, to play with. When guests visit, the boys love to stage impromptu demonstrations on magnetism. 

Aaron Becker (right) with his wife, Laney, and three boys Logan, Lincoln, and Luke.
Aaron Becker (right) with his wife, Laney, and three boys Logan, Lincoln, and Luke.

What’s your favorite book? I’m currently reading a book called Little Britches by Ralph Moody to my family. Ralph was 8 when his family moved to Colorado in 1906 to start a farm. The family struggles through dust storms, tornadoes, and irrigation fights. As an engineer, a significant chunk of my time is spent in building. Building is the central theme in this book, both as the father builds his ranch and more importantly as he builds his son into a young man. The father in Little Britches sets the bar high; my goal is to inspire my sons in the same way.

What was your favorite place to study on the Illinois campus? The reading room at the Illini Union is my favorite homework hideout. The décor is ornate, but look beyond the fancy interior decoration and you’ll find comfy leather couches. The bookshelves are over-stocked with an eclectic array of books, perfect for distraction—almost like a print version of Wikipedia.

What’s your favorite technological advance? It is hard to beat the railroad. We built an HO-scale train when I was in grade school, and I have vivid memories of the scent of soot and the thunder of the engine from a childhood ride on a steam locomotive. Beyond a personal fascination with trains, I love the idea of how in a single generation people who’s parents had never traveled further than 20 miles could now cross the whole United States. This democratization of travel opened the country to the common people. The speed of information flow increased by an order of magnitude, which fascinates me because it’s mad to learn how our greatest American victories occurred after peace treaties had been signed, but before this information had percolated back to the generals.

What was your greatest childhood fear? The way spiders move unnerves me. I’m creeped out every time I see the giant spider Shelob from The Lord of the Rings. What disturbs me on a deeper psychological level is how spiders operate, spinning amazingly intricate webs to ensnare their prey, and then lying in wait off to the side. There is beauty in a spider’s silk, especially when glistening with morning dew, but any creature unfortunate to become ensnared looks forward only to paralysis and  interminable storage—until the spider is hungry. 

What’s your favorite quote? Each morning as my dad dropped me off at school, he would say “Keep your nose clean and your chin up.” This saying is pithier than it appears!  Never underestimate the importance of honesty—it’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you mind your own business and not everyone else’s. “Keep your chin up” is a reminder that most of my troubles diminish if I face them head on, but loom ever larger if I try to ignore them.

If you could be any food item, what food would you be? I’d be an acorn, lying on the grass in the sun somewhere. Most people wouldn’t eat me, and on the off chance a squirrel buried and forgot me, I might one day grow into a mighty oak tree.

Where in the world have you always wanted to go? I want to go to Prince Edward Island in Canada. My wife, Laney, loves the book Anne of Green Gables, and has often imagined walking the forest paths and smelling the salt air. It’s a dream of mine to take her there and take in the beauties of the earth, farmland, and sea described in the books as "ruby, emerald, and sapphire." Seeing the joy on Laney’s face would be satisfying.  

If you could go back in time just to visit, where and when would you go? I’d find a good observation point and witness the birth of our solar system. Given technological advances that enable time control, I’ll assume we can also accelerate viewing time to see the ignition of our sun and the Earth coalescing. I’d enjoy having the first definitive answer to my son’s question “Where did the moon come from?”

What do you miss most about the Illinois campus? I miss the old bell tower at Altgeld Hall. There was this amazing lady who goes up every day at noon to play the carillon. She gives a short history spiel, then allow you to climb up and see the ancient bells. After her concert, she’d invite visitors to play on the wooden keyboard. She has a few strict rules, so watch out! Once I tried to add another hour to the bell toll and she swiped my hands off the bells.

If you could meet anyone, historical or fictional, who would it be? I’ll assume some geographical constraints and ask to meet John Adams, a local here in Boston. I just finished his biography. Of the first three presidents, he most embodied the American ideal: he never owned slaves, he was a hardworking farmer both before and after the presidency, yet he also had the skills to write up “Thoughts on Government,” the pamphlet that inspired much of the Constitution, and he was one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. He also had a reputation for being an enthusiastic conversationalist, which would make for a pleasant interview.