New Chair of ECE Brings Decades of Speed School Experience to New Role

Sept. 17, 2020

With 25 years at University of Louisville Speed School, Dr. John Naber is a familiar face. But his appointment as the Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering is new.

Like his father before him, Naber started his engineering studies at Speed School, receiving his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering. A native of Philadelphia, Naber moved away from Louisville after his MEng to pursue a career in industry. He worked for General Electric in Syracuse, New York and ITT in Roanoke, Virginia, and obtained his PhD while there at Virginia Polytechnical Institute.

In 1995, he and his wife had a unique chance to return to his wife’s hometown of Louisville when she bought franchise rights into the children’s consignment store “Once Upon a Child,” developing and opening three locations in Louisville.

For Naber, it was a golden opportunity to return to Speed School, this time as a lecturer, a gig that eventually worked into a full-time faculty position.

“I came back and started teaching and I still enjoy teaching today,” he said. As chair of the department, Naber isn’t required to teach but he said he wants to continue teaching and doing research as well. “Doing both of them is what I enjoy most with my job at UofL.”

The thrust of Naber’s research, which he said he honed in his years in industry, is in integrated circuit design. He has developed custom analog and digital circuits to meet the needs of advanced implantable biomedical sensing systems, working with a multi-disciplinary team of engineers and doctors.

For example, he partnered with UofL’s Ophthalmology department, winning a number of grants worth over two million dollars to develop an eye sensor that helps treat people with glaucoma.

“This was something completely revolutionary,” he said. “The eye sensor wasn’t something you could buy. We made it from scratch. Since then, there has been investment in it, and companies now actually sell devices like that,” said Naber.

In addition to the glaucoma project, Naber has developed a new implantable system to assist orthopedic surgeons in better diagnosing the efficacy of a spinal fusion surgery. He also worked a number of years with Dr. Susan Harkema’s group from University of Louisville doing groundbreaking research to improve upon a stimulator that’s used for back pain, and applying it to patients with paralysis.

“The electrical impulses seem to stimulate the spinal neural network to allow these patients to do things they couldn’t do before, like control their bowels or their blood pressure,” Naber explained. “The patients I remember all had remarkable improvements with the stimulator. I’ve seen them stand up. Harkema’s long term goal is to have them walk,” he said.

Current research projects for Naber also include a nursing home incontinence monitor that reduces infections and substandard care; clothing for the manufacturing environment that can sense conditions, activities, and communicate data; and a low-cost contraction sensor for remote monitoring of labor contractions and fetal heart rate.

In all, Naber has been Principal Investigator or Co-PI on 25 externally funded grants worth a combined total of $20,145,000 between 2000 and 2015. He was a member of the first SSoE research team to be awarded a nationally competitive SBIR Phase I ($500,000) and Phase II ($750,000) grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH). He has 23 granted patents (16 in the US and 7 international) and has seven option and license agreements through the University of Louisville’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).

While research projects and teaching will both continue for Naber he now of course, has an additional role in leading the ECE Department. The new Chair said his first priority is to address student enrollment in the ECE department.

“We need to make more of an effort to show high school kids what you can do with an ECE degree, and have them understand what electrical engineers do,” said Naber. Tangentially, Naber said he would like to see his department update curriculum to keep up with other schools offering various joint degrees to include both hardware-centric (EE) and software-centric (CE) paths. ‘We need to move towards that to offer a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering (BSCE) degree,” he said. “In the last eight years, there has been tremendous growth in CS & CE degrees but limited growth in EE & ECE degrees.”

“The good is that our research is doing well,” said Naber. “ECE is the number one department in the amount of research we bring in. There are research opportunities to work with various faculty members doing cutting edge technology development, and that’s a good place to start to impress kids with the kind of things they can do when they come to our department here at Speed School.”

As for next-level research goals, Naber said he’d like to see faculty collaborate more on team-based, multi-discipline driven proposals instead of just their own niche. “One way we could do that is have more faculty members be members of the new LARRI (Louisville Automated Robotics Research Institute) facility,” he said.

One ambitious project that has been stalled for years that Naber said he would like to see brought to fruition is the future Research Park. “I would like to help the dean and associate dean of research in getting companies into the 33 acres of totally unused space behind Speed School. I hate to see it not used, but we need companies to come to build it, like we’ve done with Hive Kindred and GE FirstBuild,” he said.

Naber believes the potential for partnership is great. “We could target large regionally located companies that hire a lot of our students like LG&E, UPS, Humana, or Raytheon; robotic companies that are interested in working with LARRI, or semiconductor or tech companies interested in working with MNTC or CVIP,” he said.

Last but not least, Naber hopes to work pro-actively with targeted ECE Donors to expand the department’s endowments and labs. “We have former grads who have done well and we should connect with some of those. We could work synergistically with them while trying to bring companies into the research park to work with our faculty,” said Naber. “I would consider it a success if we could do that in the next five years as a long-term goal.”