A Knight Among Us

IEEE Fellow Christopher Snowden honored by Queen Elizabeth II

18 May 2012

IEEE Fellow Christopher Snowden learned he had been knighted at the same time as everyone else in the United Kingdom—by picking up The Times and seeing his name on the list.

“I had received a letter last November letting me know that I was being considered, which was just their way of keeping the nominees on tenterhooks,” he says, laughing. “But you don’t know for sure until the names are published in the newspapers on December 31.” Snowden, president and vice chancellor of the University of Surrey, in Guildford, England, was honored for contributions to engineering and higher education. At the investiture ceremony on 3 April at Windsor Castle, Snowden knelt as Queen Elizabeth II tapped him lightly on each shoulder with a sword.

“It was exciting,” he says. “A great honor, but also a little daunting.” It was actually Snowden’s second encounter with the queen this year; the first was in February when he traveled to Buckingham Palace to receive an award for his university’s research on innovative water-purification methods.

Since taking Surrey’s reins in 2005, Snowden has boosted university revenue through increased tuition, research money, selling academic spin-off companies, and better fiscal management—enough to hire 80 more professors, build a new library, and a £35 million (US $56 million) sports complex that is a training and preparation venue for this year’s Olympic Games.

Under his watch, Surrey’s academic standing was ranked second in the country for electronic engineering, third in the biological sciences, and sixth in sociology and general engineering. Surrey has the highest employment rates for its graduates in the country: 96 percent get jobs within six months of graduating, helped by the university’s network of more than 600 international companies worldwide, according to Snowden. As part of Surrey’s Professional Training Year program, the companies place some students in a job in their junior year.

Snowden also raised entrance standards by a third, and bolstered the university budget surplus. One example was helping the university grow its academic research spin-off small satellite technology company, SSTL, and sell it for £49 million (US $80 million) to EADS, the aerospace firm with headquarters in the Netherlands.

Prior to Surrey, while a professor of microwave engineering at the University of Leeds, Snowden made significant contributions to microwave technology. He is perhaps best known for helping to develop computer modeling software to gauge how new transistor designs would work before being built—work that garnered him the 1999 IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society Microwave Prize.

He also advises a program that helps people who want to return to science and technology jobs after they’ve taken career breaks, and he counsels British government officials on public policy involving engineering.

There are strong parallels between running a university, conducting research, and advising on scientific policy and employment, according to Snowden. “It all involves problem solving and lateral thinking,” he says.

Snowden’s professional path has involved a balance of academia and industry. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Leeds, in England, in 1977, he spent a year designing visual display units for Philips’s UK headquarters in Surrey. Then he headed back to Leeds for a master’s degree in microwave communications engineering in 1979 and a Ph.D. in the design of microwave transistor oscillators in 1982.

“At the time, microwave transistor oscillators were very new,” he says. “Microwaves were used primarily in satellites and point-to-point transmission, such as broadcasting. It was some time before they were used for mobile phones.”

He then went into academia, starting out as an assistant professor in electronics at the University of York, in England, followed by a position as a senior lecturer in microwave technology at Leeds. He left in 1989 to become a senior staff scientist for Microwave Associates (also known as M/A-COM) in Burlington, Mass. After two years, he returned to Leeds to become a chaired professor of microwave engineering.

There he made some groundbreaking developments. “I discovered how to use physics and numerical models very efficiently—1000 times faster—to accurately predict how new designs of transistors would work before companies began manufacturing them,” he says. “It saved them significant time and money.”

In the mid-1990s, a division of Hewlett-Packard that later became Agilent Technologies, commercialized the software. Snowden then helped develop a more advanced version for Freescale Semiconductor, as part of a research contract with the University of Surrey. Industry came calling again in 1998, and Snowden left to become director of technology at Filtronic, a manufacturer of mobile phone hardware in Shipley, England. A year later, he was promoted to co-CEO. He assumed his current position at Surrey in 2005.

“Running universities today is like being a chief executive of an organization,” he says. “You have to understand finances, strategies, research, teaching, and academics. I understand what drives academic researchers. My job is to figure out how to create the educational environment for them so they do a great job after they graduate.”

IEEE recognized Snowden’s contributions to microwave education with the 2009 IEEE MTT Distinguished Educator Award.

Snowden is the current patron of the Daphne Jackson Trust, which is named for its founder, the United Kingdom’s first female physics professor. It offers business-sponsored fellowships to help those with science, engineering, and technology backgrounds who wish to return to careers after extended breaks.

In addition, he serves on the Council for Science and Technology—which advises the prime minister how it can assist the country’s science, engineering, and technology activities.

Snowden says he hopes his new knighthood will strengthen his ability to impact science and engineering professions.

 “I see my role at the university as enabling as well as leading it,” he says. “I like doing something that makes a positive difference over a long time, like helping thousands of students launch their careers.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More