Professor Rhonda Franklin is McKnight Presidential Endowed Professor

Abbott Professor for Innovative Education Rhonda Franklin has been awarded the McKnight Presidential Endowed Professorship. It is one of the highest honors for faculty at the University of Minnesota, and is a recognition of their academic and research accomplishments, and their contributions to the advancement of the University among its peers. Besides being an outstanding researcher in radio frequency electronics with collaborations that cross disciplinary boundaries, Franklin is also a committed educator, and especially engaged in and supportive of efforts to attract and retain underrepresented individuals to STEM disciplines within ECE, across the University, and her professional field. 

Contributions to ECE

In her role as interim Director of Undergraduate Studies (2015-16), Franklin worked directly with students, and addressed their concerns about their academic journeys. With the insight gained from these direct interactions, she developed events and programs especially targeted at non-major and transfer students. Events for non-major students were tailored to help them explore our majors and interact with faculty. Students who transferred into our programs from other institutions often struggled with integration into the department as compared to students who came to the University as freshmen. For them Franklin developed a program to aid a smooth transition to our degree programs and develop a sense of community which ultimately supports student success. The program is now a regular feature of our undergraduate academic student support programs, and for her efforts, Franklin was recognized with the 2017 John Tate Award for excellence in undergraduate advising.

As a champion for students and especially underrepresented students, she has consistently worked to ensure that they receive the support they need through academic and community resources, and created those resources where necessary. She helped undergraduate women in the department create the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) affinity group, and served as its founding advisor. She has also supported the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and North Star STEM, by giving talks and keynote addresses on various occasions. 

Contributions to the University

Beyond ECE, Franklin has served in several key roles that resulted in noting and addressing challenges that students and faculty, especially women and minorities face on campus. In her role on the Faculty Consultative Committee (FCC), she has contributed to discussions on policy matters that impact faculty, staff, and students, salary inequities, disability services, mental health, and other issues. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Franklin returned halfway through her sabbatical to support and engage in discussions on critical issues such as safety protocols on campus, budget cuts, and support for students and faculty on a range of issues that affected their work. She was also a member of the University’s COVID-19 Rapid Response team, and led one of the three mask-making teams to develop a mask to be used by emergency healthcare workers and the campus community while masking supplies were in short supply. She also played a key role in the creation of a COVID-19 resource page on the CSE web site that provides quick and personalized access to information, updates, and resources for the entire college community. This has been critical to safe re-opening and operation of the units within CSE and has proven to be a central resource for everyone, while also avoiding the confusion that can easily arise through unintended contradictions during such situations. When the University community struggled with the murder of George Floyd, Franklin worked with the FCC and the Faculty Senate, and helped shape their response to the event as well as communicate their support of our black community on campus.

Contributions to diversity and inclusion

Franklin is actively involved in ways to attract students of color to engineering and its applications. As Co-Director of the Inspire Program at the Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM), she is collaborating with her co-director to develop programs that support students at multiple levels: information and training workshops, development opportunities through internships, and networking opportunities for the students’ existing support systems such as teachers, industry representatives, and parents. Franklin is also spearheading new efforts to develop and strengthen ties between the College of Science and Engineering, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). She is facilitating connections between faculty on both campuses, and University faculty and students at HBCUs.

Franklin is actively involved in her area of professional and technical interest. As a member of  IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society (MTT-S), Rhonda has been a reviewer, conference session chair, associate and topic editor, and recently chair of the technical coordination committee on packaging and integration. She is also an advocate for microwave engineering education. One of her key achievements in the area is the establishment of Project Connect (PC) that she co-founded with two other MTT-S members. PC promotes the microwave technical field and industry to minority and women undergraduates and early career graduate students. Her commitment to her professional field, and the educational measures she has undertaken therein were recognized with the 2019 IEEE N. Walter Cox Award.

Scientific and technological contributions

As a radio frequency electronics expert, and supported by her experience in optics research at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and Honeywell, Franklin addressed the challenge of integrating mixed technology (optical and electronic) systems. The insight she provided, that design of effective light modulators by high frequency electrical signals had to come from the perspective of optical circuit design, rather than electronic circuit design, formed the basis of much of her research on planar and three-dimensional integration and packaging approaches for circuits within a chip, and between circuit modules on platforms. She has trained many undergraduate, MS, and PhD students in these areas, and they are now  successfully employed by companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, Starkey, and Medtronic or are pursuing further graduate education.

Franklin’s expertise in high frequency micro-electronic and optical fabrication have led to several interdisciplinary collaborations. She has worked with professor Daniel Bond (Department of Microbiology and Immunology) to investigate mechanisms by which bacteria conduct electricity, which could have applications in renewable energy. Yet another project has resulted in diagnostic tools with applications in improvement of human health. Collaborating with professor Ramesh Harjani of ECE, her team developed antennas that can be integrated with sensor systems to monitor the temperature variations of refrigerated blood using RFID as a replacement for manual bar-code scanners. The work has been extended to address chip-to-chip communications in integrated packaging, as well as in imaging applications. In a joint undertaking with professor Beth Stadler of ECE, Franklin and her team of researchers are developing barcoded bio-labels using magnetic nanowires to label cells for disease diagnostics. These barcoded bio-labels will allow rapid classification of cells during biopsies. 

Clearly, Franklin’s interests and expertise extend beyond electrical engineering. Most recently, she played a key role in the successful funding of the Center for Advanced Technologies for Preservation of Biological Systems (ATP-Bio). Established under the NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) programATP-Bio is co-led by the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM) and the Center for Engineering in Medicine and Surgery (CEMS) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), with the University of California Riverside and University of California Berkeley as core collaborating institutions. Franklin plays a critical role as Integration Director for the center. 

Franklin who joined the University in 1998 has been a brilliant researcher and teacher, and a dedicated mentor to her students. She has made several significant contributions to her area of expertise, integration and packaging of radio frequency (RF) and photonics components, which are critical for modern and future generations of broadband wireless communication systems. In recognition of her outstanding early research, she was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, which eventually led to her receiving the 1998 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Her sustained engagement in diversity efforts is borne out by the awards and honors she has received over the years. Recent ones include the ARCS Scientist of the Year for 2020 (“mentoring and encouraging students to follow careers in science”), the 2021 George W. Taylor Award for Distinguished Service (a collegiate award), and the 2021 IEEE MGA Diversity and Inclusion Award (IEEE, the largest technical organization in the world with over 400,000 members from more than 160 countries, awards this particular award to only 3 nominees annually across the organization). The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering congratulates professor Rhonda Franklin and thanks her for her selfless service and dedication.