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Engineering guru who inspired students for 46 years teaches last class
Subbarao Wunnava

Engineering guru who inspired students for 46 years teaches last class

May 22, 2023 at 4:43pm

During the final class lecture of his 46-year career, Subbarao Wunnava didn't let up. The engineering professor kept his students on their toes as he drew a sprawling set of diagrams on a whiteboard, turned to them and pointed at a formula. 

“Is this answer correct?” he asked.

Some students chirped yes, others no.

“What are you doing?" he asked, a humorous quality shining through his tone. "Flipping coins?"

Wunnava liked to joke, and during his final lecture at the College of Engineering and Computing, he was in full form. Yet, the tone of his voice could change in an instant.

“As engineers, you will be public servants,” said the professor emeritus, emphasizing the dire consequences that could result from a lousy design  — and engineers' responsibility to safeguard the public with their work. 

Wunnava walked out of the classroom for the last time in April. To the students he taught over nearly five decades, he was no ordinary professor, nor did he participate in the ordinary rise of an academic institution. When he came to FIU, the university consisted of three buildings. Today, FIU is one of the largest public universities in the U.S. with more than 50 faculty members in the department of electrical and computer engineering alone. The department that Wunnava helped build has risen the ranks among the nation’s best programs. FIU is No. 42 among U.S. public universities for electrical and electronic engineering in U.S. News and World Report Global University Rankings and No. 38 for electrical and electronic engineering according to QS World University Top 50 rankings.

Alumni remember how Wunnava seemed to do everything in the name of student success. Sometimes during class discussions, he gave stark advice about the importance of integrity. At other times, he promised students that if they did extra homework, he would hang out with them on Miami Beach. (He never did, but students completed the work anyway).

Every summer for 20 years Wunnava travelled to the prestigious Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, an innovation hub where researchers earned nine Nobel Prizes. He brought back new technical knowledge for his students each time he returned. Wunnava travelled to India, the Bahamas and elsewhere to interface with faculty who held different perspectives about education. And he spent extra energy on industry partnerships, connecting students with companies such as FPL, Microsoft, Intel, Boeing, Apple and Motorola. In the 1990s, he helped the university secure a $5 million grant from Mentor Graphics (now a subsidiary of Siemens) to develop a lab dedicated to the manufacturing of integrated circuits.

“Dr. Wunnava was unshakeable in his commitment to this college,” said Dean John L. Volakis. “He went above and beyond as a founder, helping us grow from a few classrooms into South Florida’s leading engineering education resource."

Above all, Wunnava’s legacy resonates with his former students.

“More than just a teacher, Dr. Wunnava was a mentor,” said Peter Legorburu, who studied with Wunnava 40 years ago and is now a software CEO. “Our interactions blended manifest respect and appreciation, teaching and learning. He was a guru in an engineer’s clothing.”

The guru

Wunnava was born and raised in India. At the time, the country had recently gained independence from British rule and opportunities to pursue engineering at the university level were limited. Nonetheless, Wunnava worked hard to be admitted and eventually went on to pursue a Ph.D in nuclear physics at Andhra University on the northeast coast of India.

“Once you understand a nuclear structure, you realize that everything, even a water bottle, is a nuclear structure. This expanded my perspective as a scientist,” Wunnava said.

Wunnava’s mentor was Andhra University professor Swami Jnanananda, who was both a deeply spiritual monk and a renowned nuclear physicist. Jnanananda sent Wunnava to the United States in the 1960s as a postdoctoral fellow in engineering physics. After five years teaching in North Dakota and working in the private sector, he was due to go back to India, but opportunities led him to stay.

“My professor always said, 'When you are a scientist or an engineer, it doesn’t matter where you are. Science is a global community,’” Wunnava recalled.

Wunnava joined FIU in 1977. Like all FIU faculty, he had students who came from all over the world. The professor tried to make them feel at home. He often invited students who had just arrived in Miami to his family’s house for dinner. Madhavi Chandra, Wunnava’s daughter, remembers students tinkering with their projects on the dining room table on Saturday afternoons as her father gave them advice.

“Growing up, that’s what I thought all college professors do,” said Chandra, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering.

Wunnava challenged students to grow. Irma Becerra-Fernandez was teaching undergraduate courses at FIU in the 1980s. She and Wunnava met while chatting about the upcoming semester. ‘This person can handle a lot,’ he thought, and asked her if she would pursue a Ph.D.

“I told him, ‘Dr. Wunnava, I have a two-year-old and six-month-old. I don’t think it’s possible.’ And he said, ‘You can do this,’” Becerra-Fernandez recalled.

Becerra-Fernandez ended up graduating as the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from FIU. She went on to hold multiple leadership positions at the university. Today Becerra-Fernandez is president of Marymount University.

“I give Dr. Wunnava credit for putting that seed of possibility in my mind,” she said.

Jaime Montenegro arrived at FIU in the 1990s with the dream of becoming an electrical engineer. That vision was thrown into peril one day when, only a few weeks before graduating, he was in a car crash. The collision left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to complete his last course.

But it did not end Montenegro’s dream. He was discharged, retook that final class, graduated and enrolled in the electrical engineering master's program. Wunnava, who had been one of Montenegro’s professors during his undergraduate studies, became his graduate degree advisor and guided him through his coursework — and towards a Ph.D.

“Dr. Wunnava was at first a professor, then a family member. Not only did I gain knowledge for my career in engineering with him, but he always taught me something in terms of life. He taught me how to cope with adversity,” said Montenegro ‘99, MS ‘02, PhD ‘07, who is now an electrical engineer for a defense contractor.

Perhaps what was most impressive about Wunnava’s career was his knack for connecting evenly across a diverse student body, says Professor Alexander Perez-Pons, a colleague of Wunnava in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

“Teaching is not easy,” Pons said. “You have students with different capabilities. So, do you teach to the highest end, or do you teach to the lowest common denominator? Finding that sweet spot was Wunnava’s specialty. When students walked away from his class, the concepts he taught were not only understood. They resonated.” 

Even after 46 years of teaching, Wunnava did not seem quite ready to give it up. His students stayed in the classroom after his final lecture was over.

“We were trying to convince him to stay for one more semester, but he said that was it,” said junior electrical engineering major Gabriel Ross.

Wunnava leaves FIU as someone who connected with people individually and en masse. He did not just teach the literal material that students needed to earn their degrees. He shared the experiential knowledge that would help students for the rest of their lives. The guru did not just educate; he inspired.