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Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Ph.D. Student to Spend Year in Japan

Published on May 21st, 2013 by Michelle Ward

As an undergraduate, Erik Hornberger spent a semester at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan. He poses with friends from the university.
As an undergraduate, Erik Hornberger spent a semester at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan. He poses with friends from the university. Hornberger will spend the next year in Japan, studying the language and engineering.

Erik Hornberger, a University of Kansas doctoral student in electrical engineering, will spend the next 14 months in Japan, gaining fluency in Japanese scientific terminology and building research connections with global leaders in brain imaging.

“I want to be able to incorporate Japanese into my engineering career, and that requires learning technical language,” said Hornberger. “It is very difficult to study both though. Professors who specialize in East Asian languages often do not know multivariate calculus, just as engineering professors do not know Japanese. The best solution is for me to take engineering courses in Japan.”

Hornberger received a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. Department of State. The scholarship provides fully funded, group-based summer intensive language institutes for American college students in 13 critical-need foreign languages. The program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans who are studying critical foreign languages.

The CLS Program in Japan provides an intensive eight-week program set in the historical castle town of Himeji. Hornberger and his fellow CLS students will receive a minimum of 20 hours per week of classroom instruction and participate in community activities and service projects.

Hornberger said the accelerated language program would be great preparation for the rest of his time in Japan, which will be at Sophia University in Tokyo. His second scholarship, the Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) sponsored by KU and the U.S. Department of Education, will provide tuition and a stipend for Hornberger at Sophia.

FLAS fellowships are awarded separately by region and degree, which narrows the pool of applicants. As a graduate student who wanted to study in Japan, Hornberger was only competing against other graduate students from KU who wanted to study in East Asia. Furthermore, KU gives priority to students from professional schools such as engineering. The FLAS is a great opportunity for EECS students who want to study abroad, said Hornberger.

“Engineering is universal. Math doesn’t change,” said Hornberger. “I have this base set of skills that I can pick up and take anywhere, and having the language skills to facilitate that should open a myriad of opportunities down the road.”

At Sophia, Hornberger is planning to split his coursework between engineering and Japanese. Hornberger points to recent conversations with a recruiter from Japan and a Japanese professor who wished more engineers would study language. They both emphasized the need for skills, such as engineering, in addition to language experience. The leading-edge engineering research in Tokyo makes Sophia an ideal location for his fellowship.

“The first semester I'm planning to take courses that I've already completed here in the U.S.,” said Hornberger. “If I'm familiar with the material already, it will be much easier for me to acquire the language, and getting a refresher on the material can't hurt either. The second semester I want to challenge myself by taking an advanced course in signal processing, my research area.”

While in Tokyo, Hornberger plans on meeting with researchers who are working in brain imaging, the same field as Hornberger and his advisor, EECS Associate Professor Shannon Blunt. Dr. Blunt has developed innovative signal processing algorithms to analyze everything from brain scans to weather forecasts, and at least one Japanese research group is using Dr. Blunt’s algorithm to improve the performance of weather radar.

“Tokyo is a sort of hub for brain imaging research. I hope to be able to network with researchers there and see where it leads,” says Hornberger.  

As an undergraduate at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., Hornberger served as the student director of Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research, which offers research and project-based learning. Hornberger oversaw 24 projects in 11 countries, including the development of a light aircraft to fly medical missions and an electric motorcycle to promote sustainability. These experiences and his semester at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan sparked his interest in global entrepreneurship, with a focus on Japan. 

Hornberger will resume classes and research at KU and his Lila and Madison Self Graduate Fellowship in the fall of 2014.