Skip to content

Limitless Bounds: An Interview with Ding Nie, Marconi Society Young Scholar

Leslie Lestinsky

His radical theory work invites electrical engineers to move in the opposite direction of what has always been taught in terms of coupling. The result is limits that are literally boundless.     

Ding Nie made quite the headway as a Department of Electrical Engineering (NDEE) graduate student. He came to NDEE to further his education after earning his bachelor of engineering degree from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, leading in the top 3% of his graduating class. Ding earned his Ph.D. in 2016 and is currently working as an RF system integration engineer for Apple. His steadfast graduate work and research propelled him into further innovative wireless research in his career. His significant contributions to collaborative advancements in wireless technologies will carry humanity into the next generation of wireless communication. Ding has received two prestigious awards this year. One is from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Antennas and Propagation Society for the 2018 Harold A. Wheeler Applications Prize Paper. Co-written with NDEE Professor Bert Hochwald, “Bandwidth Analysis of Multiport Radio Frequency Systems—Part I,” was recognized as the best applications paper published in IEEE Transactions on Antenna and Propagation Journal in 2017. In their paper, Bert and Ding looked at an open question of what is the maximum achievable bandwidth over which coupled radio-frequency systems can communicate.

The more recent award Ding has been honored with is the 2018 Marconi Society’s Paul Baran Young Scholar Award, for his work in developing models and systems to greatly increase throughput in wireless systems. He focused on turning coupling from a throughput liability into an asset and developed new throughput bounds for today’s multi-antenna systems. This theory allows engineers to understand the interplay of coupling and bandwidth. His work guides the design of antennas and circuits that will lead to increased throughput and faster wireless communications for consumers across the globe.

In this personal interview, Ding shares more about the man behind the theory and his journey as an electrical engineer.

  •  Why did you choose to study EE, what makes you passionate about it?

Electronic devices are behind everything society uses. I wanted to understand why and how they work, the fundamentals of electronics. Also, my father was a professor of physics. My exposure to his knowledge of physics sparked my interest. I wanted to find meaning behind it, the answer. I was passionate, and still am, about finding answers. 

  •  Who are your mentors or other professionals in the industry that inspire you?

Bert was the most important mentor of my graduate studies that inspired me. I learned from him what it means to earn a Ph.D. He advised: don’t just get instructions from others in order to do your work. Find out what you need and want to do, find out what path will lead you to those goals, and then find a way to tackle it. He taught me that in your Ph.D. research, you don’t always get the results you want but you can still learn and get experience from the work and next time you try, you will have more insight to build on because of that work. He was a very good mentor and taught me how to be an exceptional engineer. Claude E. Shannon, the father of information theory, was also an inspiration to me. Often I find encouragement in good papers. You can learn so much more from the original work than a textbook. There is insight in the papers you can sense and pick up on, reading between the lines. It took great minds to find answers to engineering problems of the past, it will take great minds to find answers to engineering problems of the future. The answers aren’t often in textbooks. The wisdom is in the papers.

  •  What about your experience as an NDEE student had the biggest impact on you?

The University of Notre Dame is an enterprise with culture. I was positively impacted by that environment and culture. My interactions with the people I met and got to know while I was there changed my view of the world. The luxury I had to work closely with brilliant faculty shaped me into the professional I am today. People work very hard at Notre Dame; it’s a remarkable university.

  • Was there ever a point in your graduate career that you wanted to give up and if so, why didn’t you?

Of course, Ph.D. students feel a lot of pressure and most experience some level of depression. I want to say to current graduate students experiencing those low points in their graduate careers: speak out and speak up. When you’re feeling very low, talk to someone about it, ask for help. I realized and accepted the nature of the work before I got into it. I knew it was going to be hard and I would experience set-backs but giving up wasn’t an option I was willing to ultimately allow myself.  

  •  What advice would you give to current EE grad students?

Remember what your passion is and keep it in the forefront. Don’t be obsessed with the future of the job market. Make up your mind on what your individual passion is, follow your heart, and trust the future will be bright.

  •  Looking back on your years in grad school at NDEE and thinking about where you are now in your career– who do you have to thank and what would you do differently, if anything? 

I want to thank Bert again for his exceptional mentoring. I’d also like to thank my girlfriend Grace. She was an undergraduate at Notre Dame while I was a Ph.D. student, we graduated together. She’s still my girlfriend today and has been with me through it all. I would also like to thank the entire NDEE department. I would not do anything differently, no regrets.

  •   What is the best thing about working for Apple?

I get to work behind the scenes of what the general public sees to enable new communications on a product. I get to see that work come to fruition in the end product. Then that product goes to market and I can see how my work within that product serves the consumer. Apple is really good at creating mystery around their products and making consumers enjoy those surprises. The product is often better than what the consumer anticipated.

  •  What is the goal of your work and research at the moment, what do you hope to discover and/or achieve?

I’m still in touch with Bert and working on the research I started in graduate school. I want to put theory back into practical things and give other electrical engineers a good model to use for their research.

  •  What do you predict the future of wireless, cellular phones and antennas might look like in 5 years?

Speed. However, that’s just a small part of the greatness the future holds. It’s difficult to accurately imagine and predict, but I would think that there will be a significant decrease in latency of end-to-end connections in the Internet of Things (IoT), which will increase speed, which will enable new possibilities. The greatest things we cannot see or imagine yet, we will have to wait for them to reveal themselves in the future. 

  • How was the Marconi reception and the experience of winning the award, traveling to Bologna and meeting with high profile professionals in the industry?

I was honored to meet the Marconi family. He laid the foundations for communications. I had the unique privilege of getting a glimpse into old and new works in communications all at the same time. I was given a tour of Marconi’s lab and got to see his radio, his experiment that changed communication in our world forever. Amazingly, his original radio transmitter still works today. The other Young Scholar recipients that were there represented diverse areas of communications. It was a valuable experience, being able to speak with such great minds. They are all very promising young professionals. All of this combined work, new and old, that I took in during my time there was very encouraging to me as I think about my research and future work.

  •   What are you currently reading, listening to and watching?

I watch American college football. Of course, I cheer for Notre Dame. I also am a fan of the NBA. I root for the Pacers. I’m always reading technical books that will expand my horizons.

  •  What is your #1 tip for other professionals on how to work productively and efficiently?

Know your current priorities and say “no” to anything and everything that’s not in line with those priorities.  Written by: Leslie Lestinsky, Communications Specialist, College of Electrical Engineering