Curtis Ullerich: A New Face of Engineering

This engineering student is committed to music and community service

15 November 2013

IEEE Student Member Curtis Ullerich has wasted little time during his college career. The senior computer engineering major at Iowa State University, in Ames, has already helped develop an array of technologies, including machine-learning tools for solving natural-language-processing problems at Garmin—a maker of GPS navigation devices—and software that scans Android mobile applications for malware. This year, he interned at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. office, where he helped design software for analyzing big data.

Ullerich is not only enthusiastic about engineering; he’s also passionate about music. He minors in music technology and plays euphonium in the Iowa State marching band and alto saxophone in a band in his hometown of Atlantic, Iowa. He also introduces basic engineering concepts to preuniversity students as part of his local chapter of 4-H, a youth development organization.

Profile Photo: Curtis Ullerich

His involvement in all these activities earned him recognition during National Engineers Week as the IEEE/IEEE-USA New Faces of Engineering—College Edition winner, which includes a US $500 scholarship. Administered by the National Engineers Week Foundation, the award honors third-, fourth-, or fifth-year students who are members of engineering societies for their academic excellence, leadership in student organizations, and outstanding communications.

Ullerich took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from The Institute about why he volunteers, how he manages his time, and what he plans to do after he graduates.

What inspired you to study both engineering and music?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay between music and math. The commonalities are amazing. I was a band geek and competed in math competitions all through middle and high school. At first, I explored these interests separately. But my growing interest in both areas turned me on to things like music technology and algorithmic composition.

What is your favorite instrument and what music do you like to play?

Saxophone. That's definitely a biased answer because I've played it since sixth grade, so I’m much more attentive to nuances in sax performances and repertoire than for most other instruments. Sax quartet pieces are my favorite to play, followed closely by swing and big band, like those played by Glenn Miller [an American big-band musician and composer].

Can you tell us more about your involvement with teaching basic engineering concepts to younger students?

I help mentor the Iowa 4-H Tech Team, which consists mainly of high school students from across Iowa interested in technology. We meet in person four times a year and hold monthly conferences via Adobe Connect. During my two years of involvement, we have worked on sharpening interview, app-development, and programming skills, among others. Many of the students continue on to study engineering in college.

I also worked with Larry Genalo, an associate professor and coordinator of Toying with Technology, a program for education majors at Iowa State about teaching technical literacy to children through hands-on workshops. With his guidance and the equipment he lent us, we taught students in grades 6 through 12 about buoyancy and held a competition challenging them to build a miniature boat that held the most weight while staying afloat.

What keeps you so involved in your academic and local community?

Part of it is a habit I developed as a member of 4-H in high school—I learned to set goals. This has helped keep me on track throughout college. As for academics, there are only a few things you can control in life. One of them is how hard you work to learn and make the progress you want. I'm lucky to have the time and resources to do this, so I take advantage of every opportunity. I have learned to love community service through involvement in 4-H, Eta Kappa Nu [IEEE’s honor society], and other groups. I find it rewarding. It's great to have fun with good people while making a difference in your community.

What advice do you have for other students with respect to time management?

They should evaluate their commitments regularly to make sure they're investing their time meaningfully. They should try to base each thing they do on a set goal. That goal can be to gain a new skill, network, or even just relax, but students must avoid meaningless time sinks if they’re to make the most of their college careers.

You’ve recently become interested in big data. Do you plan to work in that field after graduation?

Big data is becoming increasingly important to businesses, both the traditionally high-tech and the non-tech. As systems and services like social networks grow larger, previously straightforward problems become more complicated and interesting. That's driving a lot of R&D, and I think that's really cool.

I recently accepted a software engineering position working with YouTube at Google, which I’ll be starting in March. I haven’t been matched with a specific team yet, but I’m hoping to work with big data. My goals are still broad in this area, but they're narrowing as I learn more.

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