Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Wednesdays.Thirteen years ago, when Dr. Magdy Attia came to the U.S. to be a visiting professor at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), a small (1600 students), liberal arts, historically black college in Charlotte, he figured it would be a short-term relationship. But it turned into a strong friendship with big payoffs for both.

Attia was, after all, a scientist with a Ph.D. in microwave technology earned in Russia. But, as he philosophizes, “It’s not a matter of where you are, it’s can you make change, make a difference where you are.”

And that Attia has done. In 1998, JCSU opened its nine-lab technology center, with some funding from the National Science Foundation, and began a computer science and engineering department a year later. He is director of the center and chair of the department. The center has, he says, “the most sophisticated videoconferencing room in the city.” JCSU was the first historically black college in the country with a computer science and engineering program and was the first university to offer such a degree in Charlotte. About 300 students are enrolled in its programs.

Earlier this month, JCSU became home for the first millimeter wave camera on a university campus in the U.S., the result of Attia’s collaboration with a British professor and a grant from NASA.

“It’s a matter of expertise and of human intellect and energy,” Attia says. “But you also need support and vision from the top, which I have received from the college president, Dr. Dorothy Yancy. It is Dr. Yancy’s vision and leadership that made it possible to move forward as a liberal arts university which embraces technology and research.”

Using millimeter waves to produce images

Unlike radar, millimeter wave cameras are passive scanners, reading the concentration of millimeter radiation an object gives off. This is then translated by a computer to produce an image. It can penetrate much further than infrared scanners in dense fog. These qualities give the camera great potential, especially for aviation safety and military uses, but also for medical scanning and in airport security. It is for that last purpose that Attia’s British colleague, Alan Lettington, has been developing the camera.

Although NASA is definitely interested, cost remains the biggest drawback, rather than the technology. “The receivers have to be configured differently for every purpose, and you often need more than one in a camera,” Attia explains. “And one receiver costs about $25,000. So the issue is, ‘How do we make it affordable?’

“But the work has paid off — it has put the college’s name on the map,” Attia adds.

Finding a niche

Initially, Attia had not intended to stay in the U.S., but he found he enjoyed the religious freedom here, in addition to the environment at JCSU. As a Coptic Christian in predominately Muslim Egypt, he knew firsthand what it was like to be a minority. In fact, he was the first Christian in his department at the university where he taught in Cairo.

“I need to do what I love to do,” Attia says. “Otherwise, you’re just working for the paycheck. It isn’t an enjoyable process. But it takes years, and you have to have patience.”

Names in the News

Two of Charlotte’s tech entrepreneurs were among the 24 finalists named to the Carolinas’ 2003 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Matthew Michalewicz is the chief executive of NuTech Solutions, which sells predictive analytics and optimization software. Earlier this month, he was named a finalist for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Entrepreneur Awards.
Keith Ludeman is chief executive of Goodmortgage.com, an online mortgage lender. The Carolinas’ winners will be eligible for national awards. —

Tom Bojarski, CEO of EchoStone Inc. has been selected as one of 60 participants in the Birthing of Giants program, a three-year training program for entrepreneurs under 40 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. —

Customer Connect Associates, Inc. has been selected by O’Malley Auto Group of Virginia to develop a customer service process that will help them evaluate their service quality, increase customer loyalty and improve dealer profitability. Geoffrey Ables indeed Customer Connect in 2000.