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Nov. 3, 2023

Remembering the distinguished career of Kun-Mu Chen

Nov. 3, 2023

New memorial fund establishes endowed scholarship

A distinguished electrical engineer at Michigan State University, whose professionalism and drive helped establish a comprehensive research program in the College of Engineering, is being remembered with a new fund to help Spartan students.

ChenThe Kun-Mu Chen Memorial Endowed Scholarship will provide support for undergraduate and graduate students with demonstrated financial need in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

MSU Engineering Dean Leo Kempel said Chen’s remarkable career began as a new faculty member hired in the 1960s to increase the research activity of the department and college. Chen actively recruited several high-visibility faculty members and established what is now the Division of Engineering Research.

“He had already established an international reputation for excellence in scholarship prior to joining the university and continued to build his, and our, stature among research universities,” Kempel explained. “He, in effect, put Michigan State University on the map in his field of study and recruited those who followed him to maintain and enhance the reputation of the department, college and university among professional peers,” Kempel added.

University Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Satish Udpa described Chen’s work as firmly centered around advancing science.

“He would make sure his students were just as passionate about science as he was,” Udpa said. “He would often show up in my office in his retirement years and talk about things we could do to help our students succeed. He was a consummate professional who never forgot his students.”

Emeritus Professor Edward Rothwell was Chen’s Ph.D. student for three years and then a close faculty colleague for almost 15 more.

“I benefited greatly from his generosity and wise council,” Rothwell said. “The biggest impact he had on my career was to help me understand my fundamental responsibility as a faculty member. Although he was a world-renowned researcher and was highly respected by his professional peers, he was quick to remind us that our principal responsibility, and the reason we were at the University, was to serve the students.

“He was my role model for developing a student-centered philosophy of teaching and research,” Rothwell added. “I will always be grateful for his leadership. I know that my time at MSU was so much more fulfilling because it was based on his selfless example of service to his students.”

The story of Kun-Mu Chen begins outside of Taipei, Taiwan, where he was born. He quickly showed his gifted talents as a student, which qualified him to study at the prestigious Taida - National Taiwan University. Chen graduated at the very top of his class in electrical engineering.

Upon graduation, he was selected as one of two winners for the prestigious international C.T. Loo Fellowship and continued his education at Harvard University. Chen was mentored by Ronold W. P. King, a famous professor of applied physics, who helped him specialize in Electromagnetic Theory.

In the summer of 1960, he graduated from Harvard University with his Ph.D. in applied physics and spent the next two years working in research in electromagnetics and plasma physics at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of Michigan. 

Chen’s son, Ken, writes about his father’s life in Finding A Home in the Land of Green.

In early 1964, Chen saw an advertisement from MSU in the IEEE Magazine seeking a strong candidate to lead a new electromagnetics program. Negotiating with Engineering Dean Lawrence Von Tersch, he joined MSU as an associate professor and MSU’s first Taiwanese professor.

Chen would spend the next 40 years earning many federal research grants, mentoring dozens of students, authoring numerous articles, writing a textbook, and building a distinguished electromagnetics research team.

“I had no fear, just excitement.”

“Dr. Chen’s tireless efforts created one of the strongest programs in the country – a remarkable achievement that has remained to this day,” said John Papapolymerou, MSU Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “In the span of over 40 years, he supervised 46 Ph.D. students to graduation and made significant technological advancements and contributions in his field of expertise.”

Papapolymerou said one of his more notable contributions to science was the development of a microwave life-detection system, which helped locate human subjects buried underneath earthquake rubble. The life-detection system has been used by NASA and has saved many lives during disaster recoveries.

“His legacy will live with us and guide us forever,” Papapolymerou added.

Throughout his academic career, Chen received several national and University grants as well as awards for his teaching and innovative research endeavors. He was known for his creativity, outspoken yet kind nature, intellectual courage, and wit.

Chen retired in 2000 and died in December 2022 in San Diego, California. He was 89 years old.

In addition to his productive academic career, he was also an active leader in the Taiwanese community, both in the Lansing area and in San Diego, California, where he spent his final years. He was a dedicated father and grandfather, who also enjoyed golf and a healthy debate about the day’s politics. He was a fervent and loyal sports fan of the Michigan State Spartans.

Donors who would like to contribute to the Kun-Mu Chen Memorial Endowed Scholarship can do so here. For more information on how to make a gift to the College of Engineering, call the Office of Development at (517) 355-8339 or email