Date of Birth: 25 Jul 1955
- Bishop’s High School, Tobago
- BSc (Honours) Electrical Engineering, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1976
- PhD Electrical Engineering, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1980
- The Fenrick De Four Award for Engineering (Silver), NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Organisation, NIHERST, 2010
- Prime Minister’s Special Award of Merit for Innovation in the Field of Electronics, NIHERST, 2002
- BPTT Fellowship for scholarly work, 2002
- Young Innovators Award, Ministry of Culture, 1986
- US Patent No 4,774,721 for subscriber pair identification system (co-inventor)
- Over 80 papers published in international peer-reviewed journals
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
From a makeshift laboratory in the family’s backyard, Professor Stephan G.J. Gift has emerged as an accomplished academic in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. At the tender age of 24 years, he earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering and is published in some of the world’s top ranked journals in Electronics.
NIHERST interviews Stephan Gift
Q: What were some of the formative experiences of your childhood?
A: I was born in Tobago. My parents are Vernon and Beulah Gift, both deceased. My father was an administrator, at the port authority in Tobago and my mother was a primary school teacher at Mason Hall Government. I have an elder brother, Christo, a lawyer, and a younger brother, Gerard, who is a mechanical engineer. Our parents allowed us a fair level of freedom. We played cricket, football and went hunting in an area we called “The Gully”. We also flew kites on Christmas Day, because in Tobago the kite flying season is at Christmas time. That was great stuff, you know! I had a religious upbringing; we are Methodist and went to church and Sunday school. It was a gentle experience of doing good based upon this upbringing. I was also in the Cadet Force and participated in the July/ August vacation camps they would have at Chaguaramas. Cadets from all over the country and the Caribbean gathered. The highlight of your career as a cadet was winning an exchange to Canada which I managed to do. In the Force, value is placed on doing well academically and being an all-round good person, being diligent, demonstrating responsibility, comporting yourself well and being
regular and punctual at practice and meetings. This made it quite a formative experience.
Q: What early experiences influenced your career in science and technology?
A: I started General Science in the early forms and then Physics and Chemistry in Form Three. I was fascinated by electricity. There was a device in the physics book called an “electric buzzer”. The book didn’t tell you how to build it but it told you how it worked. I built one that worked. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and sparked an interest. Around age 13 I started doing experiments at home. My father was not happy with my working in the house because of the possibility of causing a fire, so he gave me a work space adjoining the garage. My elder brother helped me build shelves, benches and a desk. Eventually, I had a little lab right there.
Q: What are some of your most memorable experiments?
A: I did experiments in Chemistry and Biology but the experiments in Physics is where the fascination lay. I built all kinds of things. One thing that took me a good while to get working was an electric motor. I saw many designs and I tried to get one to work. I struggled and I was not sure what the problem was. Every new design I saw, I would try it and I would fail. On one occasion, my family went to the beach but I decided to stay at home because I wanted to try this new motor design. As they were returning, I flicked the switch and off the motor went. I was so joyful. I ran out and told them “It’s working. It’s working!” I took it to school. We tried the one bought for the school, properly constructed and all that, but they couldn’t get it
to work. The teacher called on me to demonstrate mine. I put the battery in and off it went. The experience was great. There I was demonstrating to the class a motor that I had built, and it was working!
I graduated to amplifiers. There was a guy who repaired radios close to the school, and he would put out all this junk. I saw all these things and said, “Boy this is a lot of good stuff here.” I would get pocket change, but not to buy transformers and tubes and so on. So, I salvaged components from the trash. I did not have a voltmeter. I would use a low voltage bulb from a torch light or something. If a circuit blew the bulb, I would know that the voltage was “high”. Now that was really very crude, but then one day my dad gave me a job, and he told me if I completed it he would buy my first multimeter to measure voltage, current, resistance. I did get that multimeter!
I also constructed my first power amplifier which I used to play music. My Physics teacher showed me how to get sound through a speaker. Most speakers are mounted within the box with the cone facing out. He showed me how to mount it outside the box. And this one speaker unit with an amplifier, which delivered only four or five watts (not a lot of power) sounded as if it were a very powerful system! I used it for a sixth form party!
Q: At the early age of 16 you took the A levels in Physics, Chemistry and Pure and Applied Mathematics and was awarded an AMOCO scholarship to pursue your degree at The University of the West Indies (UWI). Can you tell us about your undergraduate experience there?
A: At UWI, I read for my first degree in Electrical Engineering because electricity and electronics intrigue me. I could build circuits that other people designed but I couldn’t design the circuits. I wanted to learn how to design these circuits and that is indeed what happened. I graduated with First Class Honours. I remember telling my father that I got a First Class and he said that I did him proud. I was immediately offered a scholarship to do postgraduate work at UWI.
Q: What did you do for your postgraduate work?
A: I registered for the MPhil and then transferred to a PhD. I gave myself three years to complete the PhD. After two and a half years or arduous work, I ran into very serious difficulty and I had to abandon the problem that I was working on. Through what I believe to be divine intervention, I was able to come up with another problem in Optimal Control Theory. In three months, I generated so much work that I was able to submit a substantial thesis. This harrowing experience gave me an unshakeable belief in God and also more confidence in myself. My external examiner commented that my work in just two chapters of the thesis was more than enough to be awarded the PhD! It caused me to recall the story of Jesus feeding the multitude with only few fish. My thesis experience, for me, was almost something like that. I am particularly proud of this achievement, as I was the
youngest PhD graduate in the history of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Q: What would you cite as your major career achievements?
A: I got an offer at the national telephone company, then called the Trinidad and Tobago Telephone Company (TELCO), to form a research and development centre. I felt I needed to have industrial experience and an opportunity presented itself. I spent many hours in the field. We tested lines in the early hours of the morning when there wasn’t much “traffic” – when consumers weren’t using the telephone lines. We designed a piece of equipment called the Subscriber Pair Identifier, which was an advanced electronic test system that allowed TELCO to reconcile consumer usage with billing. This reconciliation exercise was necessary as billing often got muddled, some people got billed incorrectly and some people didn’t get billed. Technicians would manually reconcile the records and it would take many days and there were many errors. It was very, very inefficient. The
Subscriber Pair Identifier, which we patented, automated the process. It was accurate, fast and saved a lot of money. We designed everything including circuit boards. The parts were made in Miami and elsewhere and brought back in, and we assembled the boards locally. This was quite revolutionary for that time. We were very proud of this feat. We sold the equipment (USD$10,000 for one) to the Barbados Telephone Company and the Bahamas Telephone Company. It was on its way to being something TELCO could develop for Trinidad and Tobago. Unfortunately, 49 per cent of the company was sold to Cable and Wireless. The CEO figured that we didn’t need to do any research here. I remember in one of his memos to us he put research in quotation marks. In other words, “you are not doing real research, Cable and Wireless has labs in the UK. We don’t need any research
in Trinidad and Tobago.” So the lab was closed. We didn’t continue with that beautiful experience of designing equipment locally which had export potential. At TELCO, we had in our hands a kernel for developing Trinidad and Tobago’s research and development sector that could have mushroomed. Sadly, it was snuffed out in its early days. After this experience, I returned to UWI in 1995.
Aside from that I have designed important circuit elements- active filters, instrumentation amplifiers, current and voltage amplifiers and precision rectifiers. The goal of my research is to improve existing circuit designs. I’ve just completed a book on Electronic Circuit Design with a colleague, Professor Brent Maundy, from the University of Calgary. I’ve also published over 50 peer-reviewed papers in electrical engineering.
I am also particularly proud of my work on the Calculus of Variation. Calculus was invented by Newton and is used in engineering and physics. There is an area called the Calculus of Variations which is about finding the best way to do something. Calculus of Variation is central to Optimal Control Theory. There are things called necessary conditions. That is to say, the solution to a problem must satisfy four necessary conditions. If you have a proposed solution that doesn’t satisfy one or more of these, it is wrong. If it satisfies all four, it has a chance of being right. I felt there should be a fifth one. I published a pretty extensive paper where I developed new proofs, arguing for a fifth necessary condition.
I have also published on Relativity. The foundation of Special Relativity is that the speed of light is always constant; it never varies, even if you are running towards the light or running away from the light, it will always pass you at the same speed. I have shown with the Global Positioning System that light speed is not constant and in fact light travels faster west than east.
Q: Would you recommend a career in science to today’s youth?
A: We need more people trained in the applied sciences – applied physicists, applied chemists, engineers and so on. We need indigenous design and development of technologies, products and services that can compete on the international markets. Technology is the way of the world, smart phones, mobile computing, and various fascinating technologies. There’s a need for people to design and develop technologies, so the opportunities in Science and Technology abound! There is a global industry of research and innovation where people are designing and developing things for sale in the international market place. Trinidad and Tobago must develop its scientific and technological research sector. Countries with strong research and innovation capabilities have strong, resilient economies. It is a deeply fulfilling experience to contribute to the development and sustenance of your