Richard Baraniuk guides 30 Ph.D. and postdoc alumni into faculty roles over 30 years

Rice ECE professor inspires alumni with wit, research insights and communication tips

Richard Baraniuk

In 1993, Richard G. Baraniuk began his faculty career in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Rice. Over the next three decades, his mentoring of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows would inspire 30 of them to seek careers in academia. Others entered in technology, finance, and entrepreneurship.

“Although I sometimes grumbled at the time, Rich was truly the ideal mentor,” said Matthew Crouse, Baraniuk’s first Ph.D. student. Crouse’s research training led to portfolio management. After running a hedge fund, he returned to academia as an adjunct professor of finance at Westminster College.

“Rich understood the key importance of communicating and ‘selling’ your research,” Crouse said. “I dreaded my paper drafts bleeding from his red pen, but that bleeding was critical to improving my writing skills. I only fully appreciated Rich’s mentoring as I now mentor students in their writing and presentations.”

As a principal software engineer in the technology industry, Jason Laska ’11 still uses lessons learned from his doctoral adviser. He said Baraniuk was especially adept at storytelling.

“You quickly learn from Rich that clear and concise presentation of difficult technical materials with an emotional story arc can do magic for your work. It can be used to raise funds and inspire team members,” Laska said.

Discern what is important and have fun

Justin Romberg ’03, is the Schlumberger Professor and associate chair for research in Georgia Tech’s ECE Department.

“Rich is good at knowing what is important and what is not,” Romberg said. “This shows in his research vision and in his general guidance for how students should spend their time and efforts.” 

Georgia Tech is home to five Baraniuk Ph.D. and postdoc alumni. Christopher Rozel ’07 is the university’s Julian T. Hightower Chair and Professor of ECE

“It’s hard for me to think of a part of my career that hasn’t been shaped by my experience with Rich,” he said. “Most importantly, I learned how to see the work I was doing in the context of the bigger picture and communicate with passion about its potential impact on the world.”

Mark Davenport ’10, another Baraniuk alumnus at Georgia Tech, was wrapping up his Ph.D. and had lined up a strong postdoc fellowship when he was invited to interview for a prestigious assistant professor role. The opportunity was unexpected, just two weeks away, and he had not previously considered giving a ‘job talk.’ He was starting from scratch, and Baraniuk was already traveling those two weeks.

“So I created my slides, gave five practice talks to my colleagues, and felt I was in decent shape for the interview,” Davenport said. “Rich arrived back in town the Saturday before my Monday interview, I picked him up that morning, drove to Duncan Hall and gave my one-hour talk. Over the next three hours, Rich critiqued every aspect of my delivery and slides. In the next 24 hours, I completely redid my presentation.”

Davenport’s talk was much improved, but he is still thankful he did not get that job. He went on to become a postdoc and was better prepared when he entered the job market two years later.

Teach undergraduates

Christopher Metzler ’19 did not follow his colleagues to Georgia. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, he joined the University of Maryland where he is an assistant professor in computer science. His academic journey began at Rice as an undergraduate, where Baraniuk identified Metzler’s potential.

“On the one hand, it is so easy and fun to teach Rice undergraduates,” Baraniuk said. “I don’t treat them like undergrads. I build on the capabilities they already have. The cool thing about teaching my new course, Machine Learning: Concepts and Techniques, is that it’s not just targeted at ECE juniors; anyone with the right background can take it, even freshmen.”

Baraniuk noted that several of his Rice undergrads have become his grad students -- Christopher Metzler, Tan Minh Nguyen, Ray Wagner, Romberg, Davenport, Michael Wakin and others. “Anyone could tell they were destined to do great things,” he said. “A few elected to stay at Rice and join my group. I think they would tell you it was a good experience, because they have all done well.”

Metzler agreed: “Rich has an uncanny ability to make research low-stress and exciting. As an adviser, he guides students towards interesting problems and then gives them the tools and space to develop their own solutions.”

Engage in the broader research community

Wakin ’06, professor of electrical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, admires Baraniuk’s ability to get a wide range of students engaged in their research communities. “Rich created a fun team atmosphere,” he said, “where people enjoyed working hard, challenging each other, and mentoring each other. Group meetings were high-energy and stimulating.”

Chinmay Hegde ’12, an associate professor in New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, said his former adviser has been the single biggest influence.

“Every day with Rich was a blast,” Hegde said. “One of the ways he brought levity to serious work was in the form of our headshots. Some IEEE journals require author photos. Rich found this practice absurd, and a joke in the group was coming up with increasingly silly poses for profile photos for each new paper we published. When the IEEE journals got wind of our trick, they stopped publishing our photos,” Hegde said.

“Now I run my own research group according to the ‘WWRBD’ (What would Rich B Do) principle.” Baraniuk is flattered but he acknowledges the origin of this mentoring style: Douglas Jones and the late Sidney Burrus.

“My doctoral adviser at the University of Illinois was Douglas Jones, Rice BSEE ’83, MSEE ’86, and Ph.D. ’87. He had a profound effect on me in many ways,” Baraniuk said “I was Doug’s first Ph.D. student, and he was a fabulous colleague and mentor. I was astounded that he had such sage advice about anything and everything; it was as if he were 65 rather than 35.

“One day I asked him how he managed to give such good advice and he said, ‘I was mentored in an amazing way. Anything you ask, I just think, ‘What would Sidney Burrus say?’ Turns out, I had been getting secondhand Sidney Burrus advice all through my Ph.D. I was in the right place at the right time when Rice posted a job opening in ECE. Knowing Doug had been mentored in such a great way and Sidney was still there -- that was huge attraction for me.”

Pay it forward

Baraniuk said he grew as a faculty member under the guidance of Burrus and other mentors. Having benefited from their tutelage, Baraniuk feels a responsibility to pay it forward.

“So much of what I have accomplished would not have been possible at many other places. The atmosphere at Rice is special,” he said. “So I have a responsibility to help students and postdocs to the best of my ability, just as Sidney, Doug and others did for me.”

Baraniuk’s broad influence as a mentor is matched by his research work. Eric Chi arrived at Rice as a physics major and returned to complete his Ph.D. in Statistics with David Scott in 2011. After a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, Chi undertook a second postdoc at Rice with Baraniuk. He spent six years as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and is now back at Rice as an associate professor of statistics.

“I count myself as very fortunate to have had opportunities to do research in Rich’s group as an undergraduate and as a postdoc,” said Chi. “If I had to pick out one thing, it would be the huge impact he’s had on my foundations as a researcher.”

Become detail-oriented without bogging down in the details

“Working with Rich, you learn not only how to do technically high-quality work but also to train your attention on impactful problems that will open up new directions on timely challenges,” Chi said.

Yehuda Dar is an assistant professor of CS at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, working on deep and machine learning. Like Chi, he was drawn to Baraniuk’s reputation. Dar said, “Rich is an outstanding researcher in the areas of machine learning and signal processing. I joined his group as a postdoc due to his research expertise and his extraordinary record in mentoring students and postdocs towards their faculty positions.”

A professor in the Integrated Systems Laboratory at ETH Zurich, Christoph Studer has continued to collaborate with his postdoc adviser on several research papers. But Studer’s strongest impression of Baraniuk is his vivacity.

“Rich showed me that academia does not always need to be extremely serious but can be a lot of fun. His optimism and excitement are contagious. This has fundamentally changed the way I am doing research in my group,” Studer said.

Phillip Grimaldi, a research scientist with Khan Academy, appreciated Baraniuk’s research guidance. The lesson that stands out most in Grimaldi’s memory occurred early in his postdoc fellowship. Baraniuk invited him to travel to a fundraising meeting and Grimaldi stressed over which suit and tie to wear.

“To my horror, Rich showed up wearing casual athletic-wear, and was the only one in the room not wearing business attire,” Grimaldi said. “But Rich is Rich; he had the right attitude – or swagger -- and the meeting went great. The funders loved our presentation. Rich has the ability to eschew the surface-level stuff and focus on the substance.”

Learn from other leaders and mentors

Mona Sheikh ’10 is a director of product for Suki, a technology company that provides AI-powered voice solutions for healthcare. She compared Baraniuk’s leadership style to seagull management: circling on high until he sees a problem, then swooping down to help.

“Rich was great at inspiring our group and instilling team camaraderie. My job is a team sport, and I am grateful I got a front row seat to observe how Rich managed us,” said Sheikh, who was also influenced by his communication lessons.

“Writing is an essential part of product management, and Rich played an important role in teaching me how to write clean technical documents. As anyone who has read a Rich B doc knows, he has a knack for conveying the essence of an idea in fewer words, and he held us to that standard.”

Baraniuk, who has mentored more than 75 Rice postdocs and students, deflects the credit for his mentorship and shines the light on his long-term Rice mentor, Sid Burrus.

“On my arrival in 1993, I was immediately taught that the motto for success at Rice was to ‘be like Sidney.’ And Sidney made it easy to ‘be like Sidney.’ His door was always wide open, and he was tireless in his support and mentorship,” Baraniuk said.

“Sidney was the best listener and best advice-giver on the planet, and he talked with a wide range of folks: undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, staff, other faculty and administrators. Everyone felt enriched leaving his office, and certainly better than when they came in.”

When the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering was created in 2022, Baraniuk was its first recipient. Ashutosh Sabharwal, Ernest Dell Butcher Professor and chair of ECE, said, “Rich is generous with his time, encouragement and ideas. He was the natural choice as C. Sidney Burrus Professor. Sid was his mentor and one of Rich’s closest friends on campus. They were like soulmates. When the chair came up, Rich was the natural choice.”

Carlyn Chatfield, contributing writer