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Dr. Brent Nelson: The (Retiring) Giant of ECEn

Dr. Nelson and family

In every field of innovation and exploration, there is always someone who lays the groundwork for others to follow. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, there is no greater giant than Dr. Brent Nelson, who retires this month.

For his last lecture here at BYU, Dr. Nelson shared some lessons that he learned over the course of his career. These lessons would not just shape his own life, but the lives of all the students and peers around him.

The first lesson? Following your own passion. Dr. Nelson first came here to BYU in 1984 after finishing his PhD at the University of Utah. Just twelve years later he would become the department chair – for the first time. He would later become a full tenured professor, organize the Computer Engineering program for BYU, publish over 110 peer reviewed publications, and fund several dozen research projects. He has even published textbooks for the department that are still in use today. And after all that, he wasn’t done: he became department chair again in 2012, culminating in 11 years of serving as chair for the ECEn department.

However, Dr. Nelson was not content to bless just BYU with his talents. His collaborations abroad include organizations and colleagues in the UK, Germany, Singapore, and China. He also repeatedly took students to China on study abroad programs, and participated in multiple international conferences. Worldwide, he is recognized as one of the top experts in FPGA design and architecture. The second lesson? People matter! Invest time in them.  In his last lecture he detailed the wonderful associations and friends he developed with colleagues all around the world and the blessing that has been in his life as well as in the lives of our students.

Dr. Nelson insisted on the very best for students here at BYU. Personally proposing program requirements for the Computer Engineering program, improving lab equipment for students, and developing class curriculums, he tirelessly strove to ensure that students would get the best education they could. In his words, “It’s all about the students!” But his work wasn’t just for programs or lectures or labs. Dr. Nelson has a contagious enthusiasm for learning something new. Whether it was new circuit designs, programming languages, or even just updating a CAD tool, Dr. Nelson never stopped keeping up with the latest cutting-edge technology. In fact, he said at his farewell party that learning a new computer language or HDL is his idea of fun! He embodied this next lesson: you need to take charge of your own learning.

It would be no exaggeration to say the ECEn department wouldn't exist in its current form without Dr. Nelson’s guidance and discerning eye. Not only did he strive for the best technology and coursework for students, he aimed for the best teachers as well. He was instrumental in the hiring of over half of the professors currently employed within the department at BYU, either while he was department chair or as head of the faculty search committee. But he didn’t just hire - Dr. Nelson also advised, mentored, and prepared the top faculty candidates so that BYU’s EE and CE students could have the finest education possible. As he states, “As faculty, you chart your own course.” By investing his time with the right people, BYU has been blessed with exceptional faculty and professors. Professor Nelson also advised his students to visit with faculty regularly so they could explore their potential to the fullest.

During his time here at BYU, over 4100 electrical and computer engineers have graduated from the ECEn department. That is 86% of all the graduates ever from our department. These students have gone on to work in industry, start their own businesses, and even return to BYU as teachers themselves. Without Dr. Nelson, many of those students wouldn’t be where they are today. But thanks to the foundation he laid for us, ECEn has a bright future.

Thank you, Dr. Nelson, for letting us stand on your shoulders to see further than we could have thought possible. We wish you all the fishing and hiking you have imagined in your retirement!