IEEE’s Past President Envisions the Future

Leah H. Jamieson: 2013 President, IEEE Foundation; 2008 IEEE President;  2003 IEEE Technical Activities Vice President; John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering, Purdue University, Ransburg Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

When asked if Technical Activities has changed since she became a member of IEEE nearly forty years ago, IEEE Fellow and former President Leah Jamieson says both Technical Activities and her perspective have changed.

“In my earliest interactions through Signal Processing and Computer societies, my focus was on very specific research,” she recalls. “I went to Technical Activities conferences and publications because I had interest in particular research topics.”

Five years after completing her term as president and ten since her term as VP-TAB, Jamieson is the president of the IEEE Foundation. “Compared to when I started my career, I see much more activity at the boundaries between research areas. These are reflections of how not only Technical Activities in IEEE has changed, but how the technical world has changed.”

Jamieson says there is a growing conversation about how those boundary areas should be navigated: in IEEE, in academia, and the technical community at-large. “We grapple with how much we want students to have depth and how much we want them to have breadth,” she says. “In reality you need both, not in one person but collectively. It’s important to have strong pillars but they must be pillars and not silos so you can build bridges across them.”

Jamieson has made building bridges a priority during her time at IEEE. During her presidency, she spearheaded the Public Visibility Initiative to create greater awareness of IEEE and its works on a global level. When asked about the success of the initiative, Jamieson said, “It’s not done, and I don’t think it will ever be done. But I do get the sense that IEEE is engaging some thought leaders in ways we rarely did before. And I think the idea that people should be paying attention to the profession and the visibility of IEEE is getting more attention.”

Some of those thought leaders include voices that have been traditionally left out of the discussions surrounding technology. “One of the goals for IEEE is to advance technology for humanity. The responsibility that comes with making a statement that’s that bold is doing everything you can to achieve that goal,” Jamieson says. “If there are bright, talented, passionate people who could be contributing to the goal, and you’re not helping to make sure they are included and feel included and have a seat at the table and have a voice in the conversation, you’re not fulfilling the responsibility.”

Women in particular have been particularly left out. Jamieson, only the second female president in IEEE’s history, is aware of the statistics in the global STEM communities. “Certainly by the numbers, women are not represented in engineering, technology and physical sciences fields in proportion to women in the population. This means that there are ideas being left out the conversation, and passion being left out of our efforts to innovate.”

In IEEE in particular, Jamieson points to the scarcity of female leadership at the executive level. “We all keep trying to do things and we make some progress, but if you sit in a TAB meeting or an IEEE board meeting and look around, there aren’t too many women, especially at the leadership level.” There is no one solution, Jamieson says, and points to the struggle across all areas of STEM to include a broader range of voices, while applauding IEEE’s Women in Engineering global initiative, particularly at the student branch level. “The challenge is that no one really knows what to do. Higher ed grapples with this, professional societies, industry, everyone agrees we need to do something, but there is no silver bullet.”

Whether it’s new and emerging technologies, initiatives to bring passionate voices to the table or the board room, or an ever-shifting perspective, there is no doubt that IEEE is as always, on the cusp of change.

In envisioning the organization’s future, Jamieson says, “I think that IEEE will have a much more coherent way of thinking about not only advancing technology, but the grander goal of advancing technology for humanity. This is becoming a more pressing societal need, and is an idea that is also evolving within the IEEE. But as the world changes over the next 40 years, that connection between technology and humanity is going to have to be tighter. How to make that strong linkage is something IEEE will have to figure out, and I’m confident that IEEE will figure it out.”