Faculty Profile: Karl Böhringer
In today's world, gadgets rule. Karl Böhringer is taking gadgets that we use every day, from biomedical sensors to computer chips, making them smaller and better, and figuring out ways to assemble them more efficiently. He directs the UW's Microfabrication Facility, the largest public-access facility in the Pacific Northwest.
- Diplom-Informatiker, University of Karlsruhe, Germany, 1990
- M.S., Computer Science, Cornell University, 1993
- Ph.D, Computer Science, Cornell University, 1997
How did you first become interested in science and engineering?
When I was a small kid, I had books about astronomy and my hometown was near Stuttgart (the regional capital) where there was a planetarium. I went there all the time and saw every show. I loved the astronomy aspect, but also became fascinated by the planetarium’s mechanisms. I kept thinking about how to build a machine that recreated the night sky.
What is one of your current research focuses?
In general, I’m interested in building small things - sensors, actuators, portable diagnostics. I work on micro- and nano- electro mechanical systems and collaborate on different projects from biomedical to computer sciences. A project that’s occupied me for years is assembling and packaging tiny, silicone chips into complex systems. For portable devices - cell phones, smart phones, Bluetooth, whatever the device is - they contain a lot of electronics. There are transmitters, touch screens, navigation, gyroscopes and more. These different functions are often realized by using very different chips. The question is how to produce and assemble them efficiently? If you need billions of units per year, it’s an interesting problem to manufacture them and still make it cheap enough to sell the product.
What is something happening in your field that excites you?
The overall theme is that things that used to be large and expensive are getting smaller and cheaper. The medical field is one area where that will especially happen. I’ve worked on portable diagnostics and that area will continue to grow. Think about a smart phone; it’s a pretty powerful and small computer. Imagine combining them with sensors that the researchers in my field are building that make them cheaper and more disposable. It would be possible to obtain an incredible amount of health info with a handheld device. Plus, it would only cost a few cents and you could throw it away when you're done.
What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing your field?
It’s always good to have a personal connection to the field. If you’re interested in something specific, try to find somebody to talk to who’s good in that area. Talk to your professors and contribute to the labs. It’s important to make a personal effort and put the work in a context beyond it just being something you read in a book.
What is an advantage of working or studying at the UW?
One aspect is just life in general in Seattle. It’s important to have the opportunity to get out in the world for awhile. After working a lot, sometimes you need to take a day off and go skiing or hiking. It’s a great area to do that because everything is so close together.
Since you develop small things and devices, do you own a lot of them yourself?
It’s a little ironic that I personally have very few gadgets - a laptop and a cellphone so old that I don’t want to say. I’ll get around to getting a new one at some point. I haven’t had the time. I guess I’m making the sacrifice so I have time to develop it for others!
Also see the "featured engineer" profile of Prof. Böhringer on EEWeb.