How Bongho Kim Combines Research with Teaching
Bongho Kim pursued a career in computer science through a circuitous route involving oceanography and marine science. After earning an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, he joined Bell Labs, where he advances the future of mobile networks and telecommunications as a senior research engineer. He’s also a lecturer for MCIT Online, where he teaches the popular Wireless Communications for Mobile Networks elective course.
We recently caught up with Kim to learn more about his path to Penn, his teaching approach, and the challenge of providing one-on-one support to students across time zones.
How did you get interested in mobile networks?
I actually came to the United States to study oceanography. I had earned a master’s degree in marine science in Korea, and I came to California in 1991 for a PhD. But that same year, the Soviet Union collapsed, which led to reduced funding for research. I realized that a PhD in oceanography probably wasn’t going to lead to a good job.
So I went to Ohio State University for a computer science degree, and while I was there I heard a lecture about nomadic computing given by Leonard Kleinrock, one of the fathers of the internet. His idea was that people should not need to stay connected to their computers by a cable. We should be able to move around. That was fascinating to me, and I came to Penn to study mobile computing.
Where did your Penn education take you?
At Penn I had a fantastic instructor from Bell Labs who motivated me and taught me a lot of practical things about 2G mobile communications, and after I graduated, I joined Bell Labs to work on 3G and 4G. It was a dream come true. I’m still at Bell Labs, and right now I’m focusing on 5G and 6G. At Bell Labs we usually don’t have a direct work assignment—instead, we pursue breakthrough research that meets our own interests and is aligned with the company’s priorities.
What brought you back to Penn as an instructor?
I wanted to return to Penn to give back for what I learned there. So six years ago I joined the computer science department to teach wireless communication to students who do not have a strong electrical engineering or math background. I created a course for the on-campus program, and the following year I was asked to teach in MCIT Online.
What’s your approach to teaching?
When I’m teaching, there are two things I always keep in mind. One is that I try not to be an instructor or teacher—I try to be a colleague. Because once they graduate, someone will hire them, and they will become colleagues. So in my classes, no one is the boss—the students and I work together as colleagues.
I also want to be the kind of teacher I wish I’d had. When I was a student, I knew some professors who were kind, some who were maybe not so much. And so I always try to be someone who I wish to have had myself.
What are some of the challenges of teaching MCIT Online students?
MCIT Online students come from all over the domains—finance, real estate, and more. They all have some level of familiarity with WiFi, so they think they’re ready for the course, but they don’t know exactly what WiFi is or how it works, so the first two weeks of the course can be difficult.
But no matter what a student’s background is, I always work through it with them and teach them at the level of their understanding. For someone who has a good background in technology, I can set the level. For someone who doesn’t have a background at all, I work on the concept level. I enjoy that, and it helps me learn, because if a student asks a question that’s too fundamental, it gives me a chance to take a closer look at the principal fundamental theme and how to explain it.
What do students take away from the MCIT Online program in addition to tech skills?
Our program emphasizes collaboration and teamwork. Those are important skills because these days there are not many things we can do alone. In technology in particular, everything is becoming standardized. Collaboration is very much required. So I emphasize to my students that grades are based on their own capability and their own scores—not how they compare to other students. And I encourage them to work together, discuss together, and help each other.
How do you make sure your students are absorbing the material?
In addition to providing office hours for my students, I offer one-on-one sessions for anyone who needs help. And because my students are all over the world in different time zones, I usually have sessions at odd hours—for example at 11 a.m., 11 p.m., and even 4 a.m. When someone sends me a question, I send back a Zoom link immediately, because I know they really want to get an answer. I dedicate a lot of time to my students, because that’s what I wanted my education to be like.
How does your work at Bell Labs inform your teaching?
One good thing about continuing to work while teaching at Penn is that I am up to date on the technology, and I can bring the latest information to class. At Bell Labs, our research is at the frontier. We’re ahead of everybody else. So I can see where the field is going, and I share that with my students.
Having those insights can be very beneficial for students when they’re looking for jobs. One of my students recently got a job in 5G right after graduating from MCIT Online. He told me that he was able to answer most of the questions in his job interview based on what he had learned from my course.