James Sturm '79
“Decide what you really like to do, then do it on a daily basis.”
That's the advice of James Sturm ’79, professor of electrical engineering. He speaks from experience. Sturm knows what it is to follow a life passion, as well as how close one can come to missing out on one’s true calling.
Sturm was once where his students are now. As a Princeton undergraduate, he majored in electrical engineering, and though he enjoyed his classes, he never considered making his major a career. “I just never thought about it on the level of a daily job,” he says.
Instead he planned to pursue a career in business, and he finished his senior year with a round of interviews with finance firms and MBA programs. It was during one of these interviews that he found his way back into electrical engineering.
“After a daylong interview, I found myself in the corner office of a big New York finance firm with the vice president,” he recalls. The executive noticed Sturm had majored in electrical engineering and asked an unexpected question: “There’s something I always wanted to know; what's the difference between voltage and current?”
Sturm answered and spent the rest of the interview explaining voltage and currrent, wattage, the mysterious “third prong” on electrical plugs and other fundamentals of electrical engineering. “On the train back to Princeton,” Sturm recalls, “I realized that hour had been the most fun I'd had during all my business interviews.”
Sturm decided not to pursue business school. Instead, he worked for a year at a burgeoning new company called Intel, and then went back to school for his Ph.D. In 1986, he returned to Princeton’s Department of Electrical Engineering, where he's been teaching ever since.
Today, Sturm is a leader in laboratory innovation. With his research group, he focuses on a variety of ongoing projects, including the development of futuristic “nano devices” that could revolutionize technology by shrinking the size of circuits. He also serves as director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), a multidisciplinary research center that supports innovation and connects researchers with industry.
Even as he stands at the leading edge of his field, Sturm hasn't lost touch with his love of telling others about his field, a passion he discovered back in that executive’s corner office. “It's a great intellectual challenge to try to distill a subject down to its essentials,” he says.
According to all accounts, it's something he does very well. Said one past student, “Professor Sturm has a way of explaining things to students that makes us wonder why in the world we hadn't understood this before.”