John McNeill sitting in a chair in his office.

Faculty Snapshot: John A. McNeill

John A. McNeill​ Professor, Interim Dean of Engineering  
June 24, 2019
Patrick O'Connor

In My Office


These rocks are from observatories in New Mexico and Hawaii, where I worked on systems for my last “real world” employer, adaptive optics associates. The one with spray paint is actually a piece chipped off the Berlin wall, given to me by a co-worker.


Ale-8-1 (pronounced “a late one”) is to eastern Kentucky as Polar Beverages is to Worcester. Every other summer a group of adult leaders and high school youth from my church spend a week with the Appalachian Service Project. I keep this bottle as a reminder of how difficult life is for people with very limited options.


I chucked the industry career in 1990, went back to grad school for my PhD, and began teaching at WPI in 1994. Winning the Trustees’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 1999 was a real honor and a nice confirmation that I’d made the right career choice. My colleague, mentor, and dear friend Professor Rick Vaz welcomed me to the ranks of tenured faculty with this ECE tradition—a bottle of Dom Perignon.


In the old Alumni Gym we had the luxury of a faculty/staff locker room with personal lockers, and it was a great way to encounter interesting people from different departments. Just before the old gym was demolished, a couple of dedicated staffers helped me liberate my locker and cart it across campus to my office, where it now holds my commencement regalia at the ready.


The most distinctive student gift I’ve received is this stained glass artwork by ECE student Petra Hartman. It illustrates a calibration technique i developed that splits a measurement task into two “partner” blocks that each verify the other’s result.

I love the way Robert Frost’s poetry lies on the fine line of life’s dualities: success/ failure, light/darkness, isolation/connection. The calibration technique—my most scholarly achievement—was sparked by frost’s poem “New Hampshire,” which names Vermont and New Hampshire as “the two best states in the union.” I was inspired by Frost’s image of two different but supporting partners. Our presentation at IEEE’s flagship ISSCC conference in 2005 won the best paper award. Petra’s art reminds me how fortunate we are in the WPI community, with so many talented and caring people.


I’ve played golf since age 5 with moderate success on the amateur circuit. My biggest thrill was winning the father-son tournament at my dad’s club the year he turned 70. It was one of those magical days where everything went right, and to share it with him was extra special. He passed away in 2015 at age 80—but I still think of him every day.

This article was originally published in the WPI Journal. For the current issue, please visit the WPI Journal website.