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Retiring faculty member reflects on tech, teaching changes over last 30 years

Photo of Harry Tyrer

ECE Professor Harry Tyrer will retire in August. Photo courtesy of Harry Tyrer

The system Harry Tyrer uses for incoming email includes dozens upon dozens of subfolders organized into an intricate sequence of clicks — a digital treasure map of sorts. He has carefully filed all of his emails by subject mimicking a circuit, where each step must be completed before reaching the next, something second-nature in Tyrer’s world.

Folders contain emails stored over the course of the year — information added to what he’s gained over the last 30 years at Mizzou: students, grants and new technology. As he neared the cadence of his career, Tyrer, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, reflected on the change in computer technology, as well as the changes he encountered professionally.

His parents, British citizens, met and got married in Colombia, where he was born. Looking for better educational opportunities for 8-year-old Tyrer and his sister, the family moved to Florida when his father got a job with Avianca Airlines in Miami. Tyrer graduated from high school in Tampa, Fla., and followed with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Miami in 1965.

“I wanted to go into industry,” Tyrer said.

He went to work for Western Electric Co., in the Winston-Salem, N.C., area and then returned to school a few years later, earning a master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Duke University in 1969 and 1972, respectively. While pursuing his graduate degrees, Tyrer found his way into biomedical research. As he finished his doctorate — writing his dissertation was the only thing left — he researched jointly with Duke’s Department of Radiology. He also was teaching a class at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The foray into bioengineering led him to a seven-year stint with Becton-Dickinson, an international medical research and technology company, at its facility in the Research Triangle, N.C., area. There, he served as an instrumentation engineer and later a principal investigator and head of the cell sorter applications group, where Tyrer honed his skills in cancer research. It was these skills that brought him to Columbia.

“The director of the Cancer Research Center [at that time] in Columbia said, ‘I want to know how much it’ll cost to get you to Columbia,’” Tyrer said. By this time, he was married to wife Joy, and the couple had three children: Chip, Al and Elizabeth.

“With the Cancer Research Center and the Electrical Engineering Department at MU, we thought Columbia would be a good place to form a career and to raise a family,” Tyrer said.

Tyrer moved to Columbia in 1979 to serve as an associate scientist and head of the Bioengineering and Biophysics Department of the Cancer Research Center in Columbia. The following year, he was teaching a course at MU.

Harry and Joy Tyrer with daughter Elizabeth and sons Chip and Al.

Harry Tyrer’s (center) family join him for a photo at a reception celebrating his retirement in May. Pictured with him are his wife Joy, daughter Elizabeth and sons Chip and Al.

Tyrer said he had to choose between the direction his job for the Cancer Research Center was taking him and the direction he knew he could take with a faculty position at MU. The two directions led to different fields: the Cancer Research Center would allow him to continue his path into biotechnology, while MU would allow him to return to his roots in electrical engineering.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a weak engineer or a weak biologist,” he said, citing the difficulties of trying to continue doing both. He chose MU, starting full time in the Fall 1981 semester as an associate professor.

Teaching in ECE was very different then than it is today, Tyrer said. The differences involved more than just keeping up with new technology.

“The biggest change since the 1980s was if you wanted to do something, you had to write the computer program yourself,” Tyrer said. “There were libraries available, but not always the way you wanted them.

“Now you just use an app,” he joked.

One of Tyrer’s main contributions to the department at that time was designing one of the first computer networks on campus.

“In those days, we had no interactive computing. Desktop computers,” he said, motioning to the flat-screen monitor on his desk, “were not around, and when they came, it meant buying heavy cables and connecting terminals. We also had computer access through punch cards. That needed to change.”

There still are times now when he finds his work coming full-circle.

“In 1990, I had a class where we designed a computer I called ‘Mizzou RISC,’” he said. “I had thought about actually building it, but that would’ve taken thousands of chips.” In retrospect, while today’s computers contain millions of chips, Tyrer said, he didn’t have the manpower available at that time to dedicate to such a large project.

“A recent student made a VHSIC Hardware Description Language (VHDL) version of Mizzou RISC, and now I use a copy of his version and ask other students to modify the instruction set and test the result.”

He was promoted to full professor in 1985 and has served as Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department acting and founding department chair from 1995 to 1997, then associate chairman, from 1997 to 2000, and chairman, from 2000-2002. More recently, Tyrer has networked himself around campus and in his field, serving on the MU faculty council from 1992-1996 and again since 2010. He served as chair of the faculty council in 2011 to 2012.

Tyrer additionally has published 112 papers and holds one U.S. patent.

Post-retirement, Tyrer said he plans is to get more involved in music. He plays the euphonium for the Columbia Community Band, and said he is interested in pursuing music theory and composition. He’s also interested in building a boat.

For now, he will remain a face in ECE even after his Aug. 1, 2015, retirement. Tyrer said he will continue to teach VHDL, an advanced logic design class and will finish supervising his current graduate students through graduation.