Faculty Spotlight: Engineering professor moonlights as ultra-athlete

Christof Teuscher juggles an electrical and computer engineering professorship and research at PSU with teaching University Studies courses and overseeing undergrad research opportunities. (Photo by PSU Vanguard)

No matter what aspect of Christof Teuscher’s life you’re talking about, he’s pushing limits. During a typical workday, he juggles an electrical and computer engineering professorship and research at PSU with teaching University Studies courses and overseeing undergrad research opportunities. On his days off, he competes in races like the 430-mile-long Yukon Arctic Ultra. Or runs a section of the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Oregon in world record time. Or climbs all the major peaks in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains in one continuous trek — something no one else has done.

And then there’s his other hobby: photography. Many of his photos focus on, not surprisingly, wide open spaces. 

“The path to what I do today in life has been all but straight,” Christof says. “The reason is maybe that I have a tendency for doing things in unconventional ways and don’t like to go with the mainstream. I found alternative paths and decisions always more exciting and rewarding.”

Christof agreed to answer a few of our questions recently. His answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: Tell us a little about your background.

A: I grew up and was educated in Switzerland, in the middle of the beautiful alps.

After secondary school, I decided to seriously learn how to deal with electronics, electricity, electro mechanics, and computers, and therefore went to technical high school to become an electronics engineer. After finishing, I really couldn’t imagine working in industry, maybe repairing TVs or computers, for my whole life, so I decided to go to college and university. 

I’ve never been gifted with learning foreign languages and French and English really made me suffer a lot in college. Nevertheless, always attracted by challenges, I decided to go to university in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I ended up staying for eight years, getting both my Masters and PhD degree in computer science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. To my general surprise, I learned French to perfection rather easily. Compared to learning a foreign language at school, one is completely embedded in the foreign environment and I didn’t have to learn futile words and grammar. 

When I started at university, I didn’t quite know what a PhD degree was and how to get one. However, in my 3rd year as a Master’s student, I unexpectedly got a summer job in a lab at my university and that’s when I discovered the real fascination of science. Among many other things, this summer job also led to my first scientific publication and a trip to a conference in the U.S. From then on, I knew that science was what I wanted to do in life, and the decision to get enrolled in a PhD program was straightforward. After my PhD, my wife and I both obtained a fellowship to do research at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). We thought we’d stay a year or two in the U.S. and then go back to Switzerland. That was in 2004.

In 2008, I joined Portland State University to become a professor. In my lab, we are really pushing the limits on what computers can do. My current research focuses on the most exciting and adventurous part of computer science and engineering: the computers for the next 10-20 years. This cutting-edge research is about pushing fundamental and technical limits, realizing visions, and doing things that no one has imagined would be possible a few years ago. It never gets boring because every day is a step into no man’s land, where lots of open questions and challenges are waiting. I also run two great research summer programs for undergraduate students: altREU and NSF REU. These are a great way for students to get involved in research.

I’m a scientist because I’m curious by nature, love to explore the unknown, and can’t find rest until I know how things work or how a challenging problem can be solved.

“PSU is a school that provides incredible opportunities for anybody who seeks them.
Magic things can happen to your professional career if you knock on a professor’s door
and start working on cutting-edge research projects.”

— Christof Teuscher

Q: What do you like most about your work at PSU?

A: One of the best parts of my work is to see students grow and learn and go beyond what they thought their own limits were. I know I’ve been successful as a faculty and mentor the moment students start to know more than I do on a specific topic, when they start to own their projects, know what the next steps are, and have become thought leaders on their own. PSU is a school that provides incredible opportunities for anybody who seeks them. Magic things can happen to your professional career if you knock on a professor’s door and start working on cutting-edge research projects. Most students think college is only about taking classes, but there is so much extra value that one can get out of working with professors.

Q: What do you most like to do when you’re away from your work at PSU?

Photo by MYAU

A: I do some running and some photography in my spare time. Both are rather recent activities. I started running in 2013, when a friend asked me if I wanted to do a 50km ultra-marathon. I said yes without knowing what this really was, bought running shoes, and started running. It was a very humbling experience. I set myself a goal to not only complete a 50km ultra-marathon, but to also complete a 100 mile race within a year of starting to run. I barely managed to achieve that goal, but then I just kept going and started to complete more and more extreme races and adventures. The most challenging race I completed so far was the 430 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra Marathon in Canada, where I finished 2nd. It’s known as the world’s coldest and toughest ultra marathon. The lowest temperature I experienced was -48F. There is no room for error at these temperatures. I also hold a number of records, such as the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 750 mile Oregon Desert Trail, the Triple Wonderland, 4 Grand Canyon double crossings, and climbing all 33 peaks over 9,000ft in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness in one go.

While ultra running requires extreme endurance, photography requires a lot of patience for the right location and moment. For my 40th birthday, I bought a professional camera. My passion is for black and white minimalist landscape as well as street photography. My running adventures often allow me to find and scout amazing locations to which I may later return with my camera gear. In 2017, I was BLM Artist-in-Residence in Alaska’s White Mountains National Recreation Area. You can see some of my photos on my website.

Photo by Christof Teuscher
Photo by Christof Teuscher

Q: What’s the last book you read or movie you watched that you can’t stop talking about?

A: My last non-fiction book was “The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning” by Paul Bloom). I’m looking forward to reading Daniel Pink’s new book on “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward” next.. The last fiction book I read was “The Dutch House” by Ann Ann Patchett. I have never owned a TV in my life and very rarely watch a movie. I prefer to have real experiences.

Q: What’s your favorite spot on PSU’s campus and why?

A: Nothing beats the bike room in the 4th Ave Building. It’s the place where an exciting day at work starts after a refreshing bike commute. It’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It feels like a wormhole that beams you into a different space and time. At night, it’s the place where I transition from an exhausting (and sometimes productive) day to an evening of additional thinking, reading, and writing.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or that you regularly pass on to students?A: Advice seems to rarely work. Instead of giving advice, I try to ask questions. I’ve been given lots of advice over the years, but most of it wasn’t good or useful.

The Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science includes five departments, 84 full-time faculty and more than 3,000 students. You can participate in research, community-based learning projects and opportunities to develop your own ideas from proposal to prototype through our innovation programs. Students are in demand in the Portland job market and beyond, and they report the highest annual earnings of all PSU graduates one year after graduation.





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