Alumnus Snapshots: Paul Watkins
As a boy growing up in Ogden, Utah, Paul Watkins attended summer programs at the U when he was in middle school. He enjoyed the experience and planned on attending the university because of its great reputation, affordability, and the fact that he could ride the express bus from Ogden to Salt Lake City.
When he began his freshman year at the U, Paul found that wanted to learn as much as possible to become a well-educated and well-rounded person. He was interested in so many subjects that it was difficult to declare a major.
At one point, he planned on a triple major in German, history, and philosophy, with an idea of going to graduate school in the humanities and teaching at either the high school or college level. In 1998, he graduated with a degree in German language and literature and a minor in history. He was one class shy of a completing a minor in philosophy, which he sometimes regrets not finishing.
Eventually, practical considerations set in, and Paul realized that he didn’t want to teach and that he needed to make a living. “Fortunately, I was good at math and physics, so this led me to the Electrical Engineering and Math Departments,” he said. He completed bachelor’s degrees in both mathematics and electrical engineering in 2003. He completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2004. He worked on a Ph.D. in electrical engineering but did not complete the dissertation, opting for a job in industry instead.
Value of a U education
“My education at the U has made a huge difference in my life,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have my career in electrical engineering. My studies in the humanities helped me to become a well-rounded individual, and my studies in the Math Department taught me to think critically. In my career, I have found that I’m constantly learning new things on the job, and I enjoy this. My education at the U gave me a solid foundation, which allows me to learn and understand a lot of technical content that I didn’t learn in a classroom.”
He was fortunate to receive departmental scholarships from the Math Department, which helped him complete his undergraduate degrees. “I’m very grateful to the Math Department. I try to contribute to the department’s Undergraduate Scholarships Fund every year to try to give back and pay it forward,” he said.
In graduate school, he won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He believes that having a math degree, in addition to an electrical engineering degree, played a huge role in receiving a fellowship. He is also grateful to a number of math professors who wrote recommendation letters for him.
Favorite professors at the U
Paul enjoyed his math studies and admired a number of professors in the Math Department, including Davar Khoshnevisan, Lajos Horvath, Alexander Balk, Nicholas Korevaar, Misha Kapovich, and Fletcher Gross, noting that all of them are super smart, experts in their field, and great educators.
His favorite professor was Anne Roberts. “I took multiple statistics classes from her. She took the time to get to know me, gave me very good advice on multiple occasions, and wrote recommendation letters for me. I am very grateful to her,” he said.
Paul is also indebted to Professors Neil Cotter and Behrouz Farhang of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Professor Emeritus Gerhard Knapp of the German and Comparative Literature Department for all their help and support.
When he wasn’t working on math or electrical engineering, he spent a lot of time studying in the library and playing chess. He took beginning racquetball and tennis classes and loved them, although he admits he was terrible at both.
His first job out of college was with a startup company, Slicex (short for Salt Lake Integrated Circuit Experts). The company had raised some venture capital and were trying to develop a product, and Paul found that his education at the U, especially his graduate work, had prepared him well. The work was very interesting, but the realities of being a startup also made the job stressful. A few times the company ran out of money. Eventually, the company failed.
Subsequently, he worked for several large companies, including T.D. Williamson, GE Healthcare, Moog Medical, and Cirtec Medical. While these companies proved more stable, they had other challenges. Often, they required significantly more paperwork than actual design work, particularly those companies in the medical field.
“My degrees in engineering and math have both been very helpful, and I’ve used statistics a lot in industry. My humanities degrees have also helped, as communication and writing skills are very important,” he said.
In his current position, he serves as principal engineer at Cirtec Medical, and the job is directly related to the work he was doing in graduate school. Paul works on medical implants for brain/computer interfaces and for neuromodulation, which refers to technology that acts directly upon nerves. Classes he took in graduate school that he never thought would be useful in industry, such as the physics of nuclear medicine and bioelectricity/electrophysiology, have come in handy.
Paul is still learning and his education at the U has benefited his family. “I share a lot of things I learned in college with my daughter,” he said. “We also spend a lot of time on campus, attending all kinds of events, like the Babcock Theatre, the Music Department’s Sundays@7 series, departmental open houses (the geology and chemistry departments put on great events!), the Physics Department’s star parties, and the Faraday Lecture series. These last two events have led directly to two science fair projects for my daughter. We are regular visitors of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), and Red Butte Garden. We’re also season ticket holders for the women’s gymnastics team. I’d like to give special thanks to Christy Bills, the entomology curator at the NHMU, for mentoring my daughter.”
Advice to students
If Paul could revisit himself as a freshman, he would tell himself to plan better. “Come up with a plan to make it through college, and try to take a manageable number of classes at a time,” he said. “Taking classes because you’re interested in a topic is fine but also have a career path in mind. And remember that internships and industry experiences are extremely important to prepare you for your career and complement your coursework. One important thing is to allocate plenty of time during your senior year for a job search and/or graduate school applications.”
As an undergrad, Paul took a class on Career and Life Planning from the Educational Psychology Department. Students took personality tests and interest surveys and investigated careers that were a good fit. They also interviewed people currently working in those fields. Paul highly recommends that current students take this type of class.
“Critical thinking skills are among the most important things you can get from your college education, and they’ll serve you well for the rest of your life,” he said. “I would highly recommend reading the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn.”
Paul believes that engineering or computer science majors should take a lot of math classes, too. “A math degree, in addition to your engineering or computer science degree, will help you in industry and in graduate school,” he said. He remembers that Professor Ken Golden once told a class that when an engineer also has a math degree it’s like they are an engineer on steroids. Paul also recommends obtaining a master’s degree because graduate school gives students a chance to study fun and interesting topics, and the master’s degree will be useful in a career.
When Paul isn’t attending campus events, he spends time birdwatching and volunteering for both HawkWatch International and the Raptor Inventory Nest Survey, both based in Salt Lake City.