Brian Cunningham


Brian T Cunningham
Brian T Cunningham

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: Electromagnetics, optics, nanotechnology, and development of biosensors.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I went to school here at Illinois. I received my BS, MS, and PhD in the ECE Department. I completed my PhD in 1990, under the supervision of Professor Greg Stillman. My research focus then was semiconductor crystal growth, high-speed transistors, and semiconductor lasers. My first job was at Raytheon, where I worked on infrared sensors used in heat-seeking missiles and night vision systems. I worked there for 5 years, until they reorganized and closed the Research Division. Then I joined the Draper Laboratory at MIT to work on micromachining. While at Draper, I started working with chemical and biological sensors to detect things such as nerve gas and anthrax spores. Two of my friends were interested in starting a company, so I left Draper to co-found SRU Biosystems in 2000. I worked at SRU as the first employee and was CTO before I came back to Illinois to be a professor in 2004.

Q: What led you to pursue a degree in electrical engineering?
A: It seemed very natural to me in some ways. Like a lot of engineering students, I was pretty good at math and science. I was one of those people that were taking things apart and trying to put them back together again. I took apart a stereo, built my own radio. I also really had an affinity for chemistry, perhaps because of the fact you could see colors change or things explode, and realize that these things happened because of small molecules. When I came to Illinois for undergrad, I was registered in first General Engineering, but I soon changed to Computer Engineering because computers seemed that we were going to be important in the future. I actually programmed very early Digital Equipment Corporation computers in high school. Later in college, I realized that I wanted to go into the lab and build things with my hands, rather than working behind a computer. The irony is of course that I spend more time in front of the computer writing proposals, papers, and editing things my students’ write. It is my students that get to go to the lab, and I just get to visit them sometimes.

Q: What led you back to Illinois?
A: I didn’t plan to be a professor after finishing my PhD. I wanted to work in industry and make products, and to build things people would use. But I found—even at the company I co-founded—it stopped being a science project after a particular point, and I found myself focusing on the manufacturing, the quality control, and marketing of the product. I still had a lot of ideas, and I felt that a job as CTO didn’t allow me to continue to develop as a scientist.

Q: Why did you decide that you wanted to teach?
A: Maybe part of the reason why I wanted to teach was that my parents were both teachers. I thought maybe I’d like to do that. I don’t think I would have gone anywhere else except Illinois, and I didn’t interview for a faculty position at any other schools. As you get older, you might find yourself thinking about what impact you might have on the world with your career. You could do that through products and ideas, or things you design as an engineer. But you can also have a lasting impact by helping students start their careers.

Q: What have you taught and what do you enjoy about teaching?
A: I’ve taught ECE 329 [Introduction to Electromagnetic Fields], ECE 485 [Introduction to Microelectromechanical Devices and Systems], and ECE 416 [Biosensors]. Each of those classes is a bit different. ECE 329 is a required class in the ECE ILLINOIS undergraduate curriculum. We try to give students the tools they need to develop a really strong foundation in Electromagnetics. It’s a fun class to teach. We don’t want anyone getting an ECE degree from this department that doesn’t know what Maxwell’s equations are, even if they may not use much EM after that. The challenge of teaching the class for me is attempting to make it engaging for every student. ECE 485 and ECE 415 are classes with mostly seniors. Everyone in there is taking the course because they wanted to know something about biosensors or MEMS, because they are thinking about it as a career direction. I have to give them some of the tools that they would use in a job to design, analyze, and measure MEMS devices.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: I have a total of 14 members in my research group, composed of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. They do all the work in the lab. My students are all working on their MS or PhD thesis, and learning about biosensors and how to perform nanofabrication, and how to build things we use for bio-applications. They are really the ones who move the research forward, by building and testing things. We discuss ideas together, and sometimes those ideas turn out to be something successful.

Q: What type of things are you focusing on right now in your research?
A: We’re working on biosensors that are being used for measuring what genes are turned on or turned off. We have developed a way to detect gene expression with about two orders of a magnitude better sensitivity than what has been achievable in the past. It allows us to detect changes in gene expression that are normally not accessible. We are also working on biosensors that detect proteins in blood called biomarkers. Cancerous tissues create specific proteins, and those proteins are typically deluded to a low-concentration. We’ve developed a technology to detect them in very low concentrations—at a picogram per millimeter and lower.

Q: What is the future of your research area?
A: The continued development of noninvasive tests to detect cancer and heart disease. Pharmaceutical companies will eventually start developing drugs not for the entire population but for only a specific segment of people. Sometimes a drug has been approved by the FDA but is pulled from the market because a certain number of people experience complications. In the future, it is more likely you might take a diagnostic blood test to determine if you are expressing a particular gene or have a certain protein in your blood in order to determine the proper course of treatment. Another big change coming is that DNA sequencing is becoming faster and cheaper, kind of the same way microprocessors keep getting faster and cheaper via Moore’s law. In the next 10 to 20 years, having your entire genome sequence might only cost $1,000, perhaps less than a MRI scan.

Q: Are there any awards you are proud of?
A:I was recently promoted to full professor, so I’m most proud of that. You have to go through a long process of getting recommendations from colleagues and professors throughout the world. It is very nice to be acknowledged and be seen as worthy of receiving a promotion decided by the faculty in my department. I am also proud of the 55 patents I’ve received.

Q: What do you enjoy about the state and campus?
A: I grew up in the Chicago area. I’m an Illinois native. My family enjoys living in CU. my wife’s family is from Savoy. We have a lot of family here. Day to day, I like the University life, and the lack of traffic. I like that in this town you can find a reasonably priced house, unlike when I was living in Boston.

Q: What are your hobbies?
A: I haven’t had too much time for hobbies since I’ve been a professor. I enjoy exercising. I run and cycle and lift weights. I like wood working in my garage. I have table and band saws. I build furniture, desks, and beds for our house. I also like playing video games. In my basement, I have a large projector screen that I can hook up my Xbox 360 and Wii to. I don’t get too much time for video games, but usually during semester breaks I’ll try to play a video game or two.