ECE Faculty Spotlight: Mark Haidekker

"Engineering embodies very strongly the power of the human mind to shape the environment to benefit society and make the world a better place."
      -Dr. Mark A. Haidekker

Name: Mark Andreas Haidekker

I was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up in or near Hamburg.

What did you study in college and where did you earn your degrees?
I am an electrical engineer by education and received the University Diploma (considered to be the equivalent of a M.S.) from the University of Hannover, Germany, in 1989. I was awarded a Ph.D. in Engineering by the University of Bremen, also Germany, in 1998. My next station in life was a postdoctoral education in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego.

What brought you to UGA?
I was actively recruited by Dr. Brahm Verma… this is not the full story, though. I considered applying at UGA in 2006-2007, when there was no College of Engineering. There was, however, a promise of a future college that had no department boundaries. Having experienced the impermeability of department boundaries on multiple occasions, I was highly attracted by this concept and loved the idea – the challenge – of making it happen. Moreover, I was attracted by potential like-minded colleagues. I joined UGA in 2007, and the College was founded, much along our vision, in 2012.

What are your research interests and what motivated you to pursue this area of study?
There are two parts to this. I was always a builder, perhaps tinkerer? I’ll accept “tinkerer” only when we recall that Geoffrey Hounsfield self-described as such. Even as student, I was working part-time for companies where I designed and prototyped electronic devices. I am also a very visual type: hobby photography, astronomy, microscopy, everything that makes things visible easily caught my interest. That I would develop a predilection for biomedical imaging appears, in retrospect, almost natural.

The second part is one of those coincidences that sometimes occur and change one’s course of life. In a completely unrelated context, I happened to attend a seminar by Prof. H.-O. Peitgen about fractals in image analysis. I was thunderstruck. After the seminar, I walked right up to him and asked if I could work for him – and became his doctoral student.

The fascination of biomedical imaging with its many aspects never left me. Biomedical imaging, especially tomographic imaging, allows me to combine my two favorite areas of interest, instrumentation and imaging, up to the point that I built my own CAT scanner and am now in the process of building a low-field MRI scanner. Recently, low-field MRI has gained a lot of interest, because it eliminates the need for the massive superconducting magnets – at the expense of image quality, though. In the near term, I plan to move my research focus in this direction. My long-term vision is to form a center of expertise in low-field MRI, ideally modeled along the concept of the Small Satellite Research Lab – maybe a Low-Field MRI Research Lab?


How long have you been an instructor in engineering and what inspires you to teach or do research in your field?
Since 2002, when I joined the faculty at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

What research accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
There are several candidates. I guess that research projects that led to patents are high on the list, but if I had to choose one, I most fondly look back at the design and realization of a complete CAT scanner from the ground up (with the exception of the x-ray tube and high-voltage transformer): The CAT scanner required the design of sensing and data acquisition electronics, motion control, overarching instrument control, self-test and self-calibration, mandatory safety elements, radiation shielding, and, of course, software for tomographic image reconstruction. And when it all came together, it worked! IT WORKED!

What skills do you think are most important for students to succeed in engineering and what methods do you use to ensure the students you engage with learn the skills they need?
I have a very passionate opinion about this – I think the most important skill is to get a feeling for numbers and quantities. For an engineer, it does not truly matter if, for example, Euler’s number e is represented as 2.7183 or 2.71828182845904523536. It does matter, however, that (again, as an example) an exponential function decays to 0.37 after one time constant and not 0.00037 or 37000. Far too often, I see engineers (and students) type something into a calculator or computer and faithfully copy the result without even considering what this value means. In CSEE 4620 (Biomedical Imaging), we deal with high-velocity electrons. It is hard to fathom how many times I received home works where those electrons traveled faster than light. I even point this out in class, and still there they are, the FTL electrons. Seriously, if you get, say, v=1.5x1016 m/s, this does not raise a concern?

Or: I reviewed a printed circuit board for a motor control. The motor’s design current was almost 10 amperes, yet Eagle’s autorouter, dumb as it is, made it a default 10-mil trace (that is 1/100 of an inch). What does your instinct tell you? No – this trace will not get warm. It won’t have time for that. It will simply evaporate in an instant, such is the mismatch between current and conductor.

Or: You have a simple system with one energy storage element (e.g., a heating block). Data recorded after something was switched on shows an initial steep rise, which eventually starts to level out. In a report, the data points were represented by a log function. Admittedly, it looked like a decent fit, but… hello? What does Physics tell us about the system’s response? It is certainly not log(kt), quite obvious when t → 0.

Or: In a research publication in a high-level journal, a quantity was found to increase by 20% per time interval. Naturally, you describe it by a linear function mt + n, as done in the publication, right? Right?? I could go on, but these example show that data are more than abstract numbers. They represent something real. A lack of this basic understanding can be found, lamentably, on too many levels of engineering activities.

How to deal with this deficiency? Personally, I present this in classes, repeatedly. Many students probably can remember me harping on the units, that they always have to match. Also, in classes, I encourage critical reflection on the results. I explain that a wrong result, when it is accompanied by an analysis why this result cannot be correct or why it raises a red flag, will be graded with a very high partial credit. In ELEE 4220 (Feedback Controls), I stay with pen and paper for a long time before introducing simulations. Computer simulations can produce virtually anything (quoting myself, “you can simulate the blue out of the sky”), but do the simulated results represent the real world? Without a sense for the data, I’d even call it an engineer’s instinct, mistakes can happen, and those mistakes can easily cost lives. In classes, I try to offer hands-on projects wherever possible, such as the semester projects in ELEE 4220. I believe that building a physical, actual system teaches these skills – especially if it fails to work as specified and requires troubleshooting.

For sure, my instructional effort increases, especially with hands-on projects, but I wish that the idea of recognizing the meaning of numbers would be emphasized more widely across engineering education. We’d do society a huge favor.

What other professional experience do you have?
After graduating with the M.S. in electrical engineering, I worked for several years in management consulting, with a specialty in efficiently using IT systems (not to be taken for granted in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s). My encounter with fractals and image analysis gave me new perspectives, however, and during my PhD time I developed the desire to pursue an academic career.

What is one of your favorite inventions (so far!) and why?
OK, this is a good one. It fits right with the engineer’s instinct that I mentioned before.The invention was awarded a patent in 1979 (no, this is not a typo), and it has the USPTO number 4,151,431. It is, despite assurances to the contrary in the patent disclosure, a form of perpetual motion machine. Perpetual motion machines have been around for a long time (think, for example, about the elaborate 13th century water wheels by Villard de Honnecourt), and their history of failure is equally long. Getting a patent in the 20th century for essentially (as quoted in the patent) harvesting energy from the vacuum is an astonishing achievement.

(Disclosure: I admit that I listed this one somewhat tongue-in-cheek. For real, check out the short history of biomedical imaging, whose Big Bang was in the year 1895.)

What excites you the most about engineering?
Engineering embodies very strongly the power of the human mind to shape the environment to benefit society and make the world a better place. Once again, I could find far too many examples, such as medical technology and how it improves our lives. As engineers, we contribute directly to the modern quality of life – abundance of food, improved health and longevity, reduced drudgery due to an abundance of energy, the ability to travel to far corners of the world, and, who knows, maybe even reach for the stars? As engineers, we stand front and center.


What do you like to do in your pastime / hobbies?
Exercise is very important for me. I need my daily dose of cardio, and I also engaged a personal trainer for strength training. Still in Missouri, I toyed with the idea of virtual landscapes for indoor biking, made necessary by the harsh winters, and I built such a system long before Peloton was on the market. If travel permits, I am also an addict of the via ferrata, the iron trail, which is a unique culture in the Alps: Long sections that would normally necessitate traditional climbing are equipped with self-anchoring points, hooks, rungs, or steel wire (thus, via ferrata) and thus allow to traverse those sections solo. Those range from awesomely beautiful to pure-adrenaline challenging, and I have done some of the most demanding ones, such as the Magnfici Quattri in the Dolomites. Can you imagine stepping out on an iron peg and seeing the village right between your feet, about 3000 feet below?

Dr. Mark Haidekker
can be found tinkering in Riverbend North where he continues to work on advancing next-geneneration imaging techniques.