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The Seventies in Silicon Valley

1971-1977

In Spring 1971, companies visited the U of A campus in search of new EE grads. With Vietnam and the Cold War raging on, it was defense companies making the most attractive offers. I was about to accept an offer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, but a boutique Silicon Valley defense contractor — Electromagnetic Systems Laboratories (ESL) — outbid them by throwing in full tuition for grad school at Stanford including time off with pay when attending!

After graduation, I arrived in Sunnyvale with my worldly possessions in a U-Haul behind my VW beetle. The photo shows me and my first wife, Susie, in front of a condo we’d just purchased in the crazy Bay Area housing market. In 1975 we had to camp outside a development sales office for 7 days and nights to buy our first tract home.

Finding a direction in direction-finding

At ESL I started work in the Antenna Department, designing antenna systems for radio direction-finding systems on reconnaissance aircraft. First, an accurate scale model of the aircraft was built from aluminum. Then, we fabricated working scale models of the antennas, often an inch or less in size, and mounted them. The finished model with antenna arrays was tested in an anechoic chamber to measure the radiation pattern and other characteristics of the antennas.

In case an engineer might be needed onboard during testing, I and a few other engineers went through hypobaric/rapid-decompression training. That was an unforgettable experience, fortunately never subsequently needed. I’m surprised that almost 50 years later, a version of this reconnaissance plane is still being flown by the Air Force.

Graduate studies at Stanford

While playing with model airplanes was fun at ESL, I was also engaged in the serious task of completing an M.S., and then a Ph.D., at nearby Stanford University. The STAR (Space, Telecommunications, and Radioscience) lab attracted me, and it was an enormous privilege to have Prof. Ronald N. Bracewell as an initial advisor, and later Prof. Robert Helliwell as I focused on my dissertation.

My dissertation covered the development of a specialized receiver for tracking and performing direction-finding on VLF (very low frequency) radio signals called whistlers. Fans of technologic history can find out more in Don Carpenter’s epic memoir here: The Early History of Very Low Frequency (VLF) Research at Stanford

I thought life would be simpler once I completed my Ph.D. work. And once again, I could not have been more wrong…

Fatherhood Changes Everything

1976-1977

In March 1976, I told my supervisor at ESL I needed a week of parental leave, immediately. When asked why I hadn’t given more notice, I admitted I’d just found out myself. With raised brow he quipped, “hmm, not very observant, are you?”

My boss had simply made a wrong assumption. Susie was already experiencing ophthalmic complications from her Type 1 diabetes and had been advised not to get pregnant, so we’d applied to adopt. Then nothing for many months, and suddenly — instant fatherhood!

The shock of sudden fatherhood rocked my world, leading me to reflect on my own life choices, and what they meant for my family. In a few years, Amy would be asking me what I did at work. And while the engineering challenges in the defense industry were interesting, they didn’t feel sufficiently valuable to humanity.

Beat the rush! Have your mid-life crisis early!

I thought it was time for a change and contemplated applying my electronic engineering skills in the biomedical industry. While sending out some initial feelers, I met an IBM engineer named Jack Gelb at a cocktail party, who upon hearing my story said he knew of an engineer, Bill Podolsky, who’d made a complete switch from engineering to medicine, via a unique medical school program at the University of Miami. I contacted Dr. Podolsky and he invited me to visit him at Stanford Hospital where he was serving his residency.

That’s how I learned of the University of Miami PhD-to-MD program, a federally-subsidized experiment to head off an expected physician shortage. Open to engineers and scientists with a PhD, it compressed the normal 4-year med school curriculum into just 2 (very intense) years; the usual pre-med course prerequisites were all dropped.

I am eternally grateful that Susie, may she rest in peace, embraced this idea. We’d soon be selling our new home, one of our cars, and all our furniture, leaving friends and family behind to spend two years in Miami, Florida. We knew I’d be working hard but we could not know all that lay ahead.

Saab Story

1976-1977

Like many parents with a new baby, we thought it was time for a safer, roomier car, and what could be safer than a Saab from Sweden? Front wheel drive for snowy traction, forward-hinged hood that wouldn’t fly up in a crash, ignition key down on the transmission tunnel where it couldn’t injure your knee, door panels with hip protectors, and an impossible-to-ignore chartreuse color that outshone even school-bus yellow.

That clever ignition key that locked the transmission in reverse, well, it couldn’t be unlocked on the slightest hill. So I yanked the whole ignition key assembly and built a cipher-lock with a telephone keypad, some digital logic, and relays. Punch in the sequence and press a button to start.

For the cross-country trip to med school in Miami with Susie and Amy, I added a hitch and cargo trailer. But halfway through California, the car quit in a town hundreds of miles from any Saab dealer. I was able to locate and fix a bad fuel pump ground, but no longer trusted the car for a cross-country trip with a wife and infant.

Instead, I dropped off Susie and Amy in Tucson, to stay with my mother. Then my father and I would complete the drive together to Miami. Finally, Susie and Amy would fly to Miami and Dad would fly back. Besides enjoying a father/son road trip, Dad would get to see his long lost brother Hilly in Coral Gables, FL.

The drive went fine, and Dad and Hilly had a joyful reunion. As I prepared to start medical school at the University of Miami, Hilly took Dad sightseeing down the Florida Keys. One night they stayed up late playing poker, and my father — who according to Hilly had just drawn a royal flush — suddenly keeled over in cardiac arrest.

Now I had to fly back to Tucson to inform and comfort my mother while arranging my father’s funeral. Med school classes had already started when I got back to Miami to begin the next phase of my life.

Med School in Miami

1977-1979

On Old Olympus’ Towering Top…

Just how did the University of Miami magically compress the usual four years of medical school into just two? Well, if you taught beginner swimming by throwing everyone into the deepest end of the pool, then awarding diplomas to any survivors, you’d have the basic idea.

While the “basic sciences” would normally be covered in two years of lectures and labs, we had them crammed into 9 months. For the PhD-to-MD students with doctorates in the biologic sciences, it was intense but doable. But for those from pure engineering backgrounds¬† — bereft of pre-med courses such as organic chemistry — the only way to survive was with intensive memorization. Mnemonics — unforgettable sayings whose first letters correspond to the names you’re trying to memorize — were key. And I created over 1500 flash cards, flipping through them late into every night.

Pocketing my first medical informatics invention

Emerging from the 9 month onslaught of lectures, it was time for clinical rotations, in which the junior medical student’s role is to gather all the data¬† surrounding every patient, and be able to instantly and flawlessly report it to the more senior residents and attending physicians – any time, any place.

Scribbled index cards were in common use, but I wanted something more compact and organized. So I designed and built the custom plexiglas pocket clipboard, shown here. I had index cards printed with a grid and punched in the 4 corners, to keep penciled-in data organized in rows and columns. Each patient had a problem list, med list, history and physical, and lab flowsheet all on a single card.

With the clipboard back transparent, I kept critical info (drug doses, telephone extensions, etc) on the back of the bottom card for instant access. Those two plastic arches had a thin gap at the top, letting me insert or remove any card in the stack with the flick of one hand. There was one side effect: notoriety. Whenever the attending doc asked for more detailed patient data, the ward team just turned to me, “the clipboard guy”.