Recognition for a career of service
James Keller, an R.L. Tatum professor for the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering, and a curators’ professor in the electrical and computer engineering and computer science departments, will accept a meritorious service award from the Institute for Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) in Barcelona this year.
IEEE awards members for “outstanding and sustained service to the aims and objectives” of the organization.
“It’s a nice award, because you don’t get much for volunteering,” Keller said. “This is like ‘hey, you’ve been in the trenches for a long time slugging it out, and we noticed.’ I’m happy to get it.”
Keller belongs to the Computer Intelligence Society within IEEE, and served as editor or associate editor on a number of transactions. He was the vice president for publications for the society and introduced two new transactions in his four-year term.
He also is on the administrative committee (AdCom), similar to a board of directors, and served as program chair on several conferences. He additionally served on the awards committee until someone nominated him for the service award and he had to be removed.
“I’ve benefited from being an editor and getting travel opportunities,” Keller said. “I have very, very dear friends all around the world. I’ve been very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. So by volunteering on committees and things, I get to give back.”
Keller is a distinguished lecturer in computer information systems, which has provided him opportunities to make presentations nationally and internationally.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “I just love doing this. I’ve been all over the world.
“People who don’t do service are missing out,” Keller said. “They don’t get to experience diversity and make use of it.”
Before Keller was an accomplished engineer, he was a self-described “math guy.” After he completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, his father pushed for him to get a job as an actuary. Instead Keller went to graduate school.
“I figured I’d get a master’s and then maybe I’d teach math at a junior college,” Keller said. But he went on to receive a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Missouri in 1978.
“I sort of stumbled my way through the degrees,” Keller said. “I never had an educational plan, I just did what seemed interesting to me.”
His interests eventually led him to engineering.
“Really pure math is like art,” Keller said. “But I always had an application flavor to my thinking.”
After working a non-regular position in biological engineering, Keller got a regular teaching job with the university in the electrical engineering department.
“You know, they say don’t hire your own, but I always claimed I had been in a different college so it was okay,” he said.
Keller has been teaching ever since. Well, teaching, traveling, mentoring and swashbuckling.
Every year, Keller comes to class dressed as a pirate in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day — September 19.
He said although he tries to keep a lot of mathematical rigor in his teaching because of his background, he also tries to keep it light as much as possible. He even adopted his own pirate name, generated from a website: Red Sam Rackham.
His unabashed personality contributes to his uniqueness as a professor and certainly plays a role in the many successful relationships he’s fostered around the world and at MU.
“I’ve had a great group of colleagues and students,” Keller said.
He said he mentored Raghu Krishnapuram, now a researcher for IBM, and Paul Gader, a professor at the University of Florida. He also mentored Marjorie Skubic, currently an electrical and computer engineering professor at MU.
“I feel good about mentoring both students and young faculty,” Keller said, adding that it’s great when he goes places and bumps into students who have found success.
He said after he’s gone, that’s what he wants people to remember about him. “I would want people to say, ‘well, I can’t remember much about Keller, but his students are really good.’ ”