The story of the Center for Power Electronics Systems begins in a single room in Patton Hall.
Fred Lee, at the time a new addition to the Virginia Tech faculty, decided to establish a lab that focused on the small but growing field of power electronics. It was 1983.
Today, power electronics touches nearly every aspect of modern life: cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles, for instance, all make use of the technology. Correspondingly, CPES ballooned into the lab it is at present, spanning the entire first floor of Whittemore Hall and expanding its presence into the National Capital Region, with more than 50 graduate students working on projects for company partners.
Lee, now a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, retired from Virginia Tech in September 2017, leaving the lab to its newest director, Dushan Boroyevich, University Distinguished Professor and American Electric Power Professor in the same department.
After 40 years at the university and in the College of Engineering, Lee, who is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, has made immeasurable contributions to the field of power electronics including: earning more than $100 million in research funding; supervising 84 Ph.D. students and 93 master’s students to completion; filing 104 patents (82 of which so far have been awarded, with the rest pending); becoming one of the top three most-cited engineering authors out of over 1 million, according to the Microsoft H index; and publishing more than 290 journal papers and 710 refereed conference papers.
Yet, from the beginning, Lee’s immense career in power electronics was serendipitous.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, Lee came to the United States in 1969 and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Missouri. His fiancee, Leei Wong, was studying at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — 918 miles away. Lee closed the distance by transferring to Duke University, where he suddenly needed to find funding.
That’s when Lee met Tom Wilson, a professor in Duke’s Department of Electrical Engineering, who would change the trajectory of Lee’s career.
“This professor … has money. And he is also the most well-known in the department,” Lee said of his thoughts at the time. “So I got the money, and I got the famous professor. Why not? Whatever he does, I am willing to learn.
“That’s how I got into power electronics,” Lee said, laughing. “In my generation, almost everyone got into power electronics by surprise, by accident.”
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