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Neil Steiner

Graduation Year: 1998
Major(s): Liberal Arts / Engineering
Current position: Ph.D. Candidate 
 

Please describe your life journey since you graduated from Wheaton College.

After obtaining BA and BSEE degrees as a 3/2 student at Wheaton and Illinois Institute of Technology, I began working as a test engineer for Raytheon Systems Company in Dallas. I was fortunate to work in a group that was both fun and productive, developing test software and hardware for the circuit boards manufactured at our location. The work was challenging and enjoyable, but within two years as a result of corporate reorganizing, my colleagues and I were asked to move to Arizona or to Massachusetts.

I instead decided that it was time to consider grad school, and I looked into information about a researcher that I had read about during my last year at Wheaton. At that time I had been amazed to find out that somebody was actually working on the kinds of ideas that I was musing about. This person turned out to be a professor at Virginia Tech, and in the hopes of studying under him, I applied to the school. I consider myself very blessed to have been accepted as a grad student, having obtained this particular professor as my academic advisor, and being offered a research assistantship for the duration of my master's studies.

My time as a master's student gave me an opportunity to really focus on my interests, and to begin forging connections with other researchers, culminating in an internship with Xilinx in Colorado. My department then graciously offered me a fellowship for three years of doctoral studies, giving me the opportunity to pursue the research of my choosing. Along the way I developed additional connections with researchers in my field, and interned with Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, and Xilinx in California. I am now a few months away from completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and am rather pleased to be the first to demonstrate a proof-of-concept autonomous computing system , a system that can change its own hardware while in operation.

In what way has your Wheaton education in physics or engineering prepared you for your current (or past) job?

My Wheaton education made it clear that I had completely inadequate studying skills, and that I simply could not survive academically. High school was easy for me so I coasted through it, but it took me a few years to realize that coasting wouldn't get me through a science or engineering program in college. After burning out and dropping out, and taking some time to regroup, I returned to Wheaton and IIT on a part-time basis, forced myself to develop the studying skills that I lacked, and eventually completed both degrees. As a result, I will probably always associate Wheaton with academic failure, and with all of the remedial effort that I had to expend in order to recover from that failure. Suffice it to say that I have learned my lesson, and that grad school has been a real pleasure by comparison.

Please describe the relationship of your Christian faith with your scientific training or career path.

A question with very interesting spiritual overtones came up in the course of my research on hardware-software interaction . The fundamental nature of computer hardware is purely physical, but the fundamental nature of software, a form of information, is very poorly understood. Science is presently divided over whether information is physical or non-physical. If it is purely physical, and thus a form of matter or energy, then it should be possible to derive relationships that govern its interaction with physical computer hardware. But if it is non-physical, we presently lack the conceptual framework to explain the interaction between something physical and something non-physical. By analogy, are our minds nothing more than our physical brains, or do they involve some interaction between our brains and something non-physical, perhaps spiritual? It is actually very difficult to ask these questions in a manner that can be addressed by modern science, in part because they deal with the frontiers of our understanding, and in part because science frequently chooses to dispense with anything that it cannot apprehend.

Christian scientists must acknowledge the realities of the physical realm as well as the spiritual realm, and in some ways that may give us a more complex field to deal with. Even if science convincingly shows that information can be purely physical in nature, if we believe that God created us and the physical universe, then we must acknowledge that our own design originated outside the physical realm, and thus that information can flow from the spiritual realm to the physical realm. If we further believe that God hears our prayers, then we know that information can also flow from the physical realm to the spiritual realm. As a researcher, I can point to a strong duality between hardware and information in computers, and as a Christian I strongly suspect that a similar duality exists between our physical and spiritual sides. The interesting thing is that there is a correct answer, however difficult it may be to uncover, and that God is not afraid of the answer or of our questions. "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter." (Proverbs 25:2)

Do you have any words for young students considering a physics or engineering major?

Science and engineering are fields that are both fascinating and rewarding, especially for those who want to uncover the mysteries of this universe, or work on topics that nobody has ever looked at before. There are many ways to enjoy the world around us without majoring in science or engineering, but for anybody who wants a deeper first-hand understanding (scientists), or who likes getting their hands dirty whether literally or figuratively (engineers), these are great fields to study. Furthermore there are still vast frontiers in our fundamental knowledge (science) and application of that knowledge (engineering) waiting to be explored. I personally have found wonderful colleagues who share my inquisitiveness and with whom I have truly enjoyed working. Anybody up to the challenge should take their undergraduate years seriously, while keeping in mind the fact that those years will pay off very nicely for a long time. On a personal level I would encourage you to come and join us; you have no idea how fascinating these fields are.

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