A Career on the Fence

CREDIT: Mark J. T. Smith

With the 2012 Olympic Games set to kick off in London, Science Careers decided to have a chat with electrical and computer engineering researcher and former fencing athlete Mark J. T. Smith about what it's like to combine science and serious sport. Smith served as head of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, in Indiana, for 6 years and is now dean of the university’s graduate school. Smith was the national fencing champion of the United States in 1981 and 1983 and a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 1980 and 1984. He carried the Olympic torch toward the opening ceremonies in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, one of the last torch-carriers. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.

When I was tired and exhausted with fencing, ideas about my research work came to me.

—Mark J. T. Smith

Q: What came first, your interest in sports or your interest in science?

M.S.: I guess I grew up as a little kid very interested in science and the space program and things like that. At 6 years old, I was always tinkering and experimenting with things, so I think that was first. And then I started, as most kids, having an interest in sports activities, maybe about that same time, but I didn’t think of that in connection with a career.

Q: What led you to study electrical engineering?

M.S.: The strongest influence was a cousin I had who had a workshop in his basement. He would build a lot of the Heathkit units, oscilloscopes, and radios. I fell in love with electronics, and this was something that I wanted to understand and explore.

Q: How did you go about choosing the subject of your Ph.D.?

M.S.: I was heavily influenced by a demonstration that I saw when I was an undergraduate student at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge]. There was a graduate student and a professor, they typed some words into the computer, and the computer would take a little bit of time and then it would pronounce the words for you. And this was just the coolest thing I had ever seen so I decided that signal processing was what I wanted to go into. Then Tom Barnwell at [the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta] and I talked about projects that might lead to a good thesis, and I started in the direction of looking at sub-band coding, which was a way of trying to represent speech at low bit rates so that you could store speech with high quality.

Q: You were developing an athletic career in parallel. How did that happen?

M.S.: I was on the swimming team and the fencing team in high school, and I just had a good time in sports. I was better in fencing than I was in swimming, and so when I went to MIT, I continued with the fencing and I was on the varsity team there. I entered my first national competition when I first started graduate school and I took third place, and that put me on the international squad in the United States. This was 1978 and there was an Olympic Games coming up in 1980. That was the first time I recognized that I had a shot at making an Olympic team.

In 1980, I went to the president of Georgia Tech, and I presented him with a proposal. I wanted to take off for 6 months to train for the Olympics in Europe, and I didn’t have the money to do that, and so I asked if there was any way that he could help me. He said, “Well, give me some time to see what we can do,” and I thought that was a polite way of getting rid of me. A few weeks later, he had a check for me for $1500. So I went to Europe in preparation for the Olympics and ended up making the team. Now, 1980 was disappointing because that was the Olympics in Moscow and the United States boycotted. But I continued for the next 4 years as a graduate student and made the 1984 team.

Q: Did you find it difficult to juggle studies and training?

M.S.: It wasn’t anything that I had to make a conscious effort to do. Working in the laboratory, sometimes you just get stale and you are ready to do something athletic. And then when I was tired and exhausted with fencing, ideas about my research work came to me. It helped me create a nice balance between work and play. The other thing I was fortunate about is that I was in signal processing, so a lot of what I did was mathematics. This was before the days of laptops, but I could work out a lot of equations and formulas with just a pencil and paper. And so while I was training in Europe, I could also be working on my thesis. Toward the end, I was writing my thesis while preparing for the games and the two activities complemented each other very nicely.

Q: Was there any time when you felt the two activities competed with each other?

M.S.: No, I didn’t see those two as being in competition. I had time allocated for fencing, I had time allocated for studying, I had time allocated for taking classes, and I became rather disciplined. But I think like many people who do a Ph.D., there were plateaus and then sometimes you have some ideas that you are very excited about and they wouldn’t pan out. That had nothing to do with the fencing; that’s just the way research work goes. But I kind of figured out an important part of the algorithm, and then after that it was pretty clear what my contribution was going to be and what my thesis was going to be.

Q: Did you meet any resistance from your professors?

M.S.: No, just the opposite. There was one time I was in a competition and it ran over to the next day. But I had an exam that day; so I called my professor and I said, “Look, I’m in the finals of this competition, is it all right to miss the exam?” And the professor said, “Just go ahead and win the competition and we’ll handle your final exams when you come back.” That is an example of the kind of support that I had along the way.

Q: And did your athletic team or trainer ever think that you spent too much time doing science?

M.S.: When I was training for the Olympics, it was up to me to make the team. I managed my own time without any third-party oversight. However, once the U.S. team was selected, which was a few months before the games, we had structured weekend practices in addition to our individual home practices. We all worked very hard.

Mark J. T. Smith checking fencing weapons at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

Mark J. T. Smith checking fencing weapons at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

CREDIT: Mark J. T. Smith

Q: What was it like to be taking part in the Olympics?

M.S.: Usually when you make it to an Olympic team there have been several major international competitions that you participated in before, but the Olympics is quite special. I made the Olympics in Los Angeles, and so I was representing my country before a stadium of, I don’t know, 70,000 people. There’s just a tremendous amount of excitement. It was like being a celebrity for 3 weeks. But, interestingly, when it came down to the competition, all of that went out of your mind, and you focused strictly on whom you were competing against.

Q: How did you feel while competing?

M.S.: I fenced each touch for each touch so I didn’t focus on what the score was. Sometimes people get depressed and they’ll fall apart if they’re down by 3 or 4 points. I didn’t let that worry me and I think it’s just because I was very heavily focused.

But of course you want to win; you want to plan for the future. Every time I fenced somebody, I always observed what they did and sort of anticipated what I would do the next time I fence them. It’s a very mental game because you’re trying to figure out your opponent; your opponent is trying to figure you out.

Q: Do you think that this ability to concentrate and plan has in some ways helped you in your scientific career?

M.S.: Yes, certainly, you have to focus when you’re in a science field. Fencing, on the other hand, you can practice things and you can schedule making noticeable progress in your game, as opposed to research where you can’t schedule breakthroughs.

Q: Is there any way that being a scientist helped you be an athlete?

M.S.: Every once in a while, I would run into a certain fencer who I had trouble beating. I would study the habits of the fencer and then I would figure out moves that I needed to do that would counter those actions. So I spent a lot of time studying my opponents, maybe more so than my teammates. And that’s kind of what we do in engineering: We analyze and then we look for solutions.

Q: What was the most rewarding time during your athletic career?

M.S.: Winning my first U.S. national championship, because I had no idea that I could do this. I surprised myself and everyone else so it was a very nice experience.

Q: Did being a winner in the athletic world made you more confident in the scientific world?

M.S.: Certainly having achievements in fencing boosted self-esteem. But I’ve always been cautiously optimistic about things that I do. I think in research work, it’s also a little bit different because, at least in my community, it’s not a competition. In research, your joy comes from making a contribution that someone else will be excited about and can build on, and then they make a contribution, which you can build on.

Q: Did you ever worry about having your scientific credibility or career prospects harmed by your athletic career?

M.S.: I never thought of it as being a liability. Most people had some hobby or activity that they did so it wasn’t that unusual. In the scientific community, people will judge you on the work that you present at conferences and the work that you present in journals. Early in my career, I never put anything dealing with fencing on my bio because I felt the two were separate. And then a little bit later I’d mention it because it was a natural icebreaker. So, for example, if I was going to be giving a talk, many times people would mention, “and he’s also a fencer” and everybody would find that to be kind of interesting and people would feel more comfortable talking to you.

Q: Any advice you would like to pass on to today’s young researchers?

M.S.: It’s important to have some form of exercise in your life. It’s important to balance family life and your research life as well. If you’re going to be in an academic career for several decades, you’re not going to survive if you don’t have that balance.

The second thing that I would say is it’s very important to establish partnerships with research colleagues because many of the important problems now are interdisciplinary, and so working in teams you will have a better chance of having a real impact than if you’re trying to work by yourself.

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