A Lifetime of Learning

Mike Neuman took one class a semester for 20 years. Now that he’s retired, he’s finally getting down to the business of a Ph.D.

Mike Neuman started taking classes at USC in 1973. He worked an entire career at Hughes Aircraft and Boeing, always returning to USC for engineering courses. Now retired, he’s zeroing in on a Ph.D. in wireless communications.

Not too many USC students can say they worked for Howard Hughes. “I never met him,” Mike Neuman says with a laugh, chatting at a table outside the Hughes Aircraft Electrical Engineering Center at University Park Campus.

Neuman, now 73, started working for Hughes Aircraft in 1973, three years before its legendary and eccentric founder died; the company was later acquired by General Motors and eventually absorbed into The Boeing Co. Neuman designed and built communications satellites — to enable the early cellphones and then television systems like DirecTV — for 45 years, operating out of the same El Segundo, California, facility.

But he didn’t just punch a clock. He quickly discovered that he had to keep his skills up to date to perform his work efficiently. So, just four months into his job at Hughes, he used a fellowship offered by the company to take his first engineering class at USC. Juggling work and academics was tough, as it always is, so he focused on his career. Neuman worked his way up through the ranks at Hughes to management. But he realized, around age 50, “that I was losing my engineering expertise.” So, he enrolled in a class at USC. Then another. He didn’t stop, taking one class a semester for 20 years. He has earned two master’s degrees from USC Viterbi, in computer systems networking/telecommunications in 2004, and financial engineering in 2019.

When Neuman finally retired, he decided to buckle down and pursue a Ph.D. At 73, he’s well on his way.

“I’ve always wanted to earn a Ph.D.,” Neuman said. He recalled New Year’s Eve 1959, when he was 9 years old, having built a crystal radio himself, and turning it on to hear the announcer talking about the technological wonders that were to come in the new decade. “I’m lucky,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be an engineer for as long as I can remember. Anything engineering, especially electrical engineering, I have always loved.”

What he didn’t love were the Midwestern winters. So, after graduating from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering (following a bachelor’s from Ohio University), Neuman interviewed for a job at Hughes and came to sunny Southern California. He enjoyed working on satellites and eventually worked his way up to program management. On any given project, he would have hundreds of employees reporting to him. He found the USC classes indispensable.

“Even though a course I took here may not be directly applicable to the engineering I was making decisions on, it helped me in solving problems,” he said. “When I was working, the people who worked for me, or anybody I’d meet, I would really push them: ‘Go take a course.’ Because it helped me so much in my job.”

Neuman retired from Boeing in December 2017. Subsequent classes with Professor Andreas F. Molisch on advanced wireless communications and with Professor Keith Chugg on machine learning “made me realize that the two fields will transform electrical engineering,” Neuman said. “I wanted to be a part of it, and I began my search for a group within USC where I could pursue this line of study.” Molisch respected Neuman’s expertise and work ethic and agreed to become his doctoral adviser.

“He has a pure thirst for knowledge,” said Molisch, the Solomon Golomb-Andrew and Erna Viterbi Chair and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Never once was there any indication of ‘Oh, I’ve been working for 40 years, I know everything there is about this topic.’ This never crosses his lips, and I don’t think it ever crosses his mind. He always wants to learn more and improve on what he knows.” Neuman also is a teacher’s assistant for an undergraduate class on probability.

Diane Demetras, ECE’s director of student services, has helped Neuman sort through his completed coursework and encouraged his journey toward a Ph.D. “He always told me that was on his bucket list to get the Ph.D.,” Demetras said, “so I’m thrilled for him.”

Neuman was admitted to the doctoral program in the spring of 2021. He recently passed his screening exam, a crucial milestone that marked the end of his coursework requirements. He’s now in the research phase, focused on using artificial intelligence to predict the radio frequency environment in cellular networks. If all goes well, he will graduate in a couple years.

Once upon a time, Neuman considered not going as far as presenting a thesis, but he said a conversation with USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos changed his mind.

“A seminal product of Ph.D. research is the writing of a Ph.D. thesis, which upon its successful defense is an emphatic statement of the quality and originality of the work done,” Yortsos said. “Mike’s journey, like that of all other Ph.D. students, is remarkable and commendable. But it is also providing the additional extraordinary inspiration, one that uplifts us with its exhilarating purpose and optimism.”

Working on a doctorate is stressful, Neuman said. Unlike his fellow Ph.D. candidates, though, he doesn’t have to worry about what his next job will be. Neuman and his wife, Karen, recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, and they have two grown children and a grandchild. He doesn’t intend to take it easy now. He wants to impart the vast amount of knowledge he’s acquired — on the job and in the classroom and lab — over the last half century.

“I’d like to give back and teach, at whatever level I can,” he said.