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Volakis Steps Down as ESL Director

Interim ESL Director Robert Burkholder speaks about former director John VolakisAfter almost 14 years of transformative leadership at The Ohio State University ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL), director John Volakis announced he is stepping down from his role to focus more time on research and mentoring students.

A large group of friends, students, faculty and staff gathered at ESL on Oct. 4 for a reception to honor his achievements and to welcome interim director Robert Burkholder. Find pictures from the event HERE.

Under the leadership of Volakis since 2003, Burkholder said, ESL went from 50 graduate students and $2.8 million in research funding, to 96 graduate students and $9.4 million in funding today.

Several longtime research collaborators also thanked Volakis for his work and friendship over the years.

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Chair Joel Johnson said he recalls being on the search committee that first selected Volakis for the role.

“We knew we made the right choice. We saw your outstanding technical skills, your energy, your enthusiasm and your vision for the future,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure working with you. Let me once again express the gratitude of myself and the department for your service as director.”

Johnson said not only was there a significant increase in research funding over the past decade, Volakis also helped usher in a new modern era at ESL, with an expansion of the facilities that included a new building addition equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Volakis further helped shape a new international reputation for ESL.

Volakis thanked everyone and announced he had a few words to say, jokingly pulling out a stack of papers from his pocket.

On a more serious note, he said, there was a time when he almost left his profession entirely. When he first came to ESL as a graduate student he was working up to 80 hours a week, which went on for years. One day, he said, he got frustrated and decided to take a break. Getting his PhD didn't seem worth it anymore.

“I actually went away for several months,” Volakis said. “And then I started thinking about it. I realized that the reason I was working all those hours was because I loved the work I was doing. So I came back.”

On advice from his mentors at ESL, Volakis switched from communications and image processing to radar scattering, then carried on to earn his PhD from Ohio State in 1982.

“The message from that is it ultimately changed my life. It changed the way I was thinking,” he said. “My dream was to become a professor after that mentorship I received. When I did become a professor, I tried to transfer the same principles and the same love that they did to my students.”

Volakis went on to work at University of Michigan for many years before he was lured back to ESL as an endowed chair and director of the lab.

“I’ve always enjoyed the people at ESL," he said. "I’m certainly pleased that I had the opportunity to give back to this place, which I have grown to love. There is nothing more pleasing for me than to see the place keep going and keep doing well. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but this place. Thank you for your support all these years and I look forward to some great successes.”