In Memoriam: Al Feng

Al Feng

The Neuroscience Program has lost a beloved friend, colleague, and advisor.  Former Neuroscience Program Director, Albert S. Feng, B.S.E.E, M.S. University of Miami; Ph.D. Cornell Univeristiy and University of Illinois Professor of Physiology & Biophysics and Bioengineering passed away unexpectedly on August 31, 2021.   

We can honor, celebrate and remember Dr. "Al" Feng by sharing stories, memories, and thoughts.  Please add your stories below.  Former students, remember to list your name and graduation year.

 

Read the full Obituary Albert Feng, 1944-2021

Virtual Memorial Information - Saturday, September 18, 2021, 4:30 PM - 5:30 PM PDT  [6:30 - 7:30 CDT]

In lieu of flowers or gifts, please consider a tax-deductible charitable gift to the Dr. Albert Feng Neuroscience Graduate Research Support Fund at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The fund will support graduate student research in Neuroscience. The family has established this fund, which they hope to endow, to honor Albert in perpetuity provided the fund meets the minimum endowment level.

Donations can be made from the link above or on the Giving Opportunities page found under the Alumni Tab.

Comments

Friends,

I have learned from Jeffrey Feng that his dear father and our dear friend, Albert, unexpectedly and peacefully passed away two days ago. Jeffrey, his sister Jacqueline, and his mother, Al's lifelong partner and wife Lifei (Phoebe) are gathered at Jeffrey's home in Irvine. There may a simple memorial service in Irvine, perhaps adapted to the pandemic circumstances.

 Al was as large as life, a real swashbuckling scientific adventurer. Everything and everybody he touched here were improved. When he came in to the headships of the NSP and MIP, his first priorities were to overhaul and reorganize the written rules under which they operated, so as to greatly enhance their smooth delivery of educational services. He was a wise leader. His work on audition in bats and frogs was always right at the frontiers, and he was always greatly respected as an important scientist by people who really understood. He traveled all over the world performing imaginative field studies with bats and frogs. We all, even those of us who did not know him, owe him gratitude, appreciation, and respect for his life's works that still really continues to impact us all.

Thank you,

Rhanor

 

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It’s been hard for me to encapsulate all of my memories of Al. Al was a mentor, friend, teacher and a scholar. What many don’t realize is that Al was a dyed in the wool neuroethologist – a true believer that the only way to understand the brain was to understand the evolutionary pressures placed on it. This belief led him around the world to study frogs in their natural habitat, and he expressed many times how this type of work was his true academic passion. Even after his “retirement”, he was frolicking in exotic places to study rare species of frogs. As students in his lab, he instilled this passion for understanding animal behavior in us, but he also gave us the gift of freedom to pursue our own interests in the lab (as a PI I now know how difficult of a gift that is to give).

My most salient memory of Al is actually as a student in his advanced neurophysiology course, prior to joining his lab. He regaled us with stories about barn owls and echolocating bats and their amazing abilities. He would then proceed to draw complicated circuit diagrams on the chalk board (yes, back then we used chalk boards). I can remember feeling completely confused by these diagrams, but Al had a way of connecting the behaviors to circuits. By the time the course was over, Al’s enthusiasm sold me on systems neuroscience, and in many ways I feel like I am still taking that course – trying to understand those circuits that Al introduced me to.

Since his retirement, we had retained periodic contact. As recently as nine months ago, we packaged up some audio equipment from his old lab so he could use it on frog behavior trips, so it’s hard for me to believe that he’s gone. I have kept many of the hand-drawings that he and Dr. Wenyu Lin from his lab made of neurons over the years and currently display them in my lab. They remind me of Al. They remind me to be a better scientist. My personal memories of him remind me to be a better person. He was warm and kind, without exception. There were very few like him, I will sorely miss him.

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I met Al in his Beckman office within a few years of my joining UIUC in 1997. I do not recall the year, but vividly remember his very welcoming and uplifting attitude with a smiling face. He discussed about his research - how animals communicate with each other using acoustic signals, and how these signals can be measured. I was fascinated. He was eager to know what I was up to. He asked me to join the group (then called Neurotech, I believe), which I did. We met several times since then.

In our journey through life and career, we come across with individuals who enrich us in many undefined ways by their sheer honesty, intellect, and kindness. We miss them, both when they are with us and when they are gone. Al was one of them.

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Dear Colleagues,

I too was very sorry to hear of Al’s passing. Over the years I had a number of very pleasant opportunities to interact with Al in the Neuroscience program and in the Beckman Institute.

He was always generous with his time and an excellent team player. I still remember Al pulling together a team of Beckman researchers (including Bruce Wheeler and Charissa Lansing) to move from basic research on audition in noise (from some of his work with amphibians) to come up with a design for an intelligent hearing aid for humans. Like you, I will miss him.

Sincerely,

Art

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All,
Al was a gem, and I spent many hours with him talking science, typically at ARO, on long hikes. It was fun, and informative. It seems an early age for him to be gone.
Jont Allen

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Thanks all, for sharing. The news of Al's passing has reverberated around the neuroethology world, with Peter Narins in particular sharing many warm memories of office sharing, field studies, and friendship. But I think those of us in Illinois Neuroscience were privileged to know Albert in a special, everyday way. Memories of his charm (that smile), his wise counsel, and quiet good humor will remain with me always. I have talked with members of the Exec Committee of the International Society for Neuroethology, and I feel confident there will be a special remembrance at the 2022 international congress.

In the words of singer-songwriter John Prine's last recorded song before he passed from COVID early in the pandemic, "I remember everything." What a privilege to have worked with Albert, and with all of you.

Susan

Al was the first NSP faculty member I met upon arriving to start my faculty position. He was NSP director at the time, and he made a point of reaching out within a few days of my arrival to personally invite me to the annual NSP fall gathering happening a few days later. I didn't even know how he knew of my arrival so quickly, as I was in a different department. I still to this day remember how this kind gesture made me feel so welcome. Al was a great scientist, colleague, role model, and a wise mentor when I was NSP director. His impact on the field and on the Illinois neuroscience community will long be remembered.


Gene Robinson

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I am very saddened that Al has passed. When I was a post-doc here, he was a young faculty member starting up his lab. His wife remained in her job temporarily in St. Louis (before they had children). A group that included Al and single postdocs and graduate students would have dinner together before going back to work in the evening. He was a good guy.
Janice

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So very sorry to hear of Al’s passing.

He was such a vital person, in both senses of the word – both in the sense of full of energy and full of life, and in the sense of essential in the life and success of the neuroscience program, the MIP dept, and the Neuronal Pattern Analysis group at the Beckman Institute.

And he was such a good soul, in every sense of that word, as all those of us lucky enough to have counted him as a friend or a mentor or a colleague or an inspiration can attest.

He will indeed be long remembered and sorely missed.

Neal

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Dear Rhanor,

Thank-you for your heartfelt summary of Al’s contributions to the NSP, Illinois, science and discovery. He certainly was an important influence during my early years at Illinois.

Sue

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It is hard for me to write about Al because I have not gotten used to the idea that he is not with us any more. I grieve and mourn his passing while I remember the times I spent in his lab as a graduate student, and as a research scientist in the Intelligent Aid Hearing Project (Beckman Institute). The mix of a sense of irreplaceable loss and memories get all tangled up.

I first met Al when I was a graduate student in our Biophysics program. He was the head of the Department of Physiology, as it was then known. The thing I remember most about Al in those years (and subsequently) was that he was methodical and highly organized, especially in the use of his time. He would spend the mornings in the Head's office in Burrill Hall and then come to the Beckman in the afternoon where he had his research office and lab. It was an unvarying ritual until he finished his term as Head of Physiology. I think they were very busy years for him because he would on occasion tell me about the reorganization taking place in SOLS (School of Life Sciences). He had a keen interest in expanding auditory research and computational neuroscience on campus, and so he was instrumental in several hires in physiology, psychology, and Beckman. He must have had many stories to tell, and I hope that one day someone who knew him well from those times will write it up, and highlight Al's role in building physiology and neuroscience at Illinois.

Al was a remarkably understated and quiet person. At our weekly lab meetings in the Beckman he said the least amongst all, but he would nudge the discussions along. We were a fairly large group in my time - In addition to me and Dan Llano, we had Dave Gooler, Alex Galazyuk, Ramineh Yazdani-Lopez, Ken White, and of course Wen Yu-Lin. Mostly he was quite content to listen while we argued and discussed. He had two other lines of research going on at that time (mid to late 1990s). In addition to his electrophysiology research on the frog and bat auditory system, he did field work on frog vocal behaviour with collaborators outside Illinois (Peter Narins and Mario Pena), and he was instrumental in creating and shaping the hearing aid project in the Beckman Institute. The intelligent hearing aid design that came out of the project, although based on modern signal processing techniques, was inspired by biological ideas and insights. The inspiration for the project came from Al's laboratory research in directional hearing in frogs. In my opinion, the intelligent hearing aid project remains one of the most successful interdisciplinary research projects to come out of the Beckman Institute.

He was remarkably good at compartmentalizing the projects and never let the three interests mix. I was luckier than others on two occasions. The first time was when he came back from China with recordings of the ultrasonic calls from the torrent frog (Amolops sp.) He called me to his office and excitedly showed me the call spectrograms, the likes of which (in frogs) we had not seen before. That data went into a paper in Nature (2006). The second time was when I was a research scientist with the hearing aid project. It was a purely technical project, and my role was that of an engineer, but I managed to get ideas for some neurophysiology experiments. I badgered him into letting me do experiments in the lab. He was reluctant to mix the two projects, but finally let me have my way with a muttered "only in the evenings and weekends"! Eventually he was excited about the data I collected. That preliminary data landed me a couple of job offers.

By nature Al was a conservative scientist and disliked speculation. I recall the many comments on my manuscript where he would write in his neat handwriting in red ink, "speculation!" or "speculative!" He was also exceedingly modest and gave lower weight to his contributions than they deserved. I always believed that he did first-rate science but that he never talked much about it nor did he make a big deal over it. He was a past president of the International Society for Neuroethology, a fitting position given that he worked with, and was mentored by, the founders of Neuroethology, Bob Capranica and Ted Bullock. Al was in a large sense a true integrative physiologist, and a systems neuroscientist. There are not that many integrative physiologists any more because neuroscience has changed, priorities have changed, and the demands of research and funding have changed. For me, Albert Feng remains one of the best examples of a broadly educated neuroscientist who delighted in the study of brain and behaviour. I was inspired by him, and his legacy and inspiration continues in my work.

In the Indian tradition Al is considered to be my Guru. The influence of a Guru can be subconscious, not manifest or noticeable, but it is there. Whether it is the way I write, or the choices I have made about the kind of research I do, Al's influence is stamped in my subconscious.

I will miss you Al. More than I can convey in these few words, perhaps more than I am able to understand. It hasn't sunk in yet.

Rama Ratnam

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Al was a tremendous inspiration and role model for me throughout my career. Al took over as department head shortly after my arrival as a new assistant professor and we were both part of the same Beckman group (called Neuronal Pattern Analysis at that time). Al was always incredibly encouraging and supportive of my research and we talked often about our common interests. We both started out in technical fields (electrical engineering for Al, physics for me) and both ended up with deep interests in neuroethology. I worked on electric fish and Al had trained as a postdoc with Ted Bullock working on electric fish, so he really understood what I was trying to accomplish and always had helpful advice and suggestions. I can’t imagine a more perfect colleague.

One memory of Al that sticks with me was a conversation we had later in our careers, probably as Al was getting closer to retirement where he said something to the effect of “I don’t know when I become one of the old guys... I’ve always thought of myself as one of the young guys.” That conversation stuck with me, as I too went from being one of the young guys to one of the old guys. Al was always so young at heart. He never lost that youthful spirit. In my eyes he was always one of the young guys. That’s why is so hard for me to fathom that he’s gone.

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I had the good fortune to have Al Feng as a wise, charming, and kind-hearted senior colleague in the MIP department when I first arrived in Illinois. For those of my colleagues who came later, they missed out on knowing a great colleague. Al has left behind a rich legacy of research in auditory neuroscience on our campus which is being carried forward by Dan Llano, who did his graduate work with him, and Ben Auerbach. Both are in the Department of MIP, which was once led by Al with distinction. If you visit the 5th floor of Burrill Hall, you will see a framed image of Al (in front of the MIP department office) with a big smile on his face. We still feel his presence.

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As a graduate student in the brand new Neuroscience Program (NBB at the time) it was my great pleasure to have taken classes with Al Feng and to have called him a friend after my graduation from the program. I learned so much from his classes that taught us how to interpret electrophysiological recordings and the importance of studying ecolocation in situ. He was always kind and thoughtful and a very dear person.

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I am sad and in disbelief that Al has died. I am thinking of his family at this difficult time.

Al was a member of the neuroscience faculty when I was a graduate student and was on my thesis committee (Neuroscience, 2003). I was enthusiastic yet naive, but Al was always extremely gracious, a wonderful teacher to me as I stumbled around the auditory neuroscience world. He was extremely knowledgeable and able to understand and explain the many complex mathematical and physiological concepts we covered in the auditory journal club he hosted at the Beckman. I appreciate his dedication to careful and important science, but also was impressed that he was also someone who loved life.

I really appreciated seeing such a wonderful pictorial history of some of the special times in Al's life.

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I too was stunned by Al’s sudden passing. For about 10 years UIUC and SIU-SM labs, 70 miles apart, would meet for end of summer picnics with tennis. We shared seminar speakers and visiting graduate students. His love for neuroethology was infectious linking behavior to auditory function was his passion. Al’s smile would light up any room waving his arms to make a point with a big grin. Warmth and kindness his trademark, he will be missed.

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REMEMBERING AL FENG!
Over the nearly 40 years I knew Al Feng, what always drew my attention was the expressiveness of his face and body language. When in repose, he radiated focused thoughtfulness. But, he loved a social setting. When he came by our home for a chat, watched our children as toddlers playing chase with our Brittany Spaniel, presented lectures on how bats echo-locate to wide-eyed graduate students, beat his colleagues at a friendly game of tennis, led debates on how best to extract an informational auditory signal from the white noise of sounds beneath a waterfall, or spoke with new department heads about extending the reach of neuroscience on our campus, Al had a smile on his face like the sun coming over the mountains.

This caused people to immediately feel a bond of trust with him. That smile ensured that Al was listened to and his words considered for their meaning---and made each encounter more successful! Al had a vision of greatness -- for himself, for his family, for his students, for the department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, for the Neuroscience Program, and for the University of Illinois. He enhanced lives at each of these levels, and made an indelible imprint! I was glad to learn from him about how to accomplish this vision. Indeed, I try to build upon what he taught me every day. Al was the embodiment of good-natured positivity about the joyous nature of Llfe and the opportunities it offers.

Thinking about Al and his smile reminds me now about the broad trajectory of his interesting life. Travel from Indonesia, to Miami, to San Diego, to Champaign-Urbana, to Munich, to China, to the many world-wide destinations across the arc of his life. I have no doubt that his smile contributed to the way he effortlessly bridged with these new environments and made friends.

I've been thinking about just why Al smiled so much. I've decided it was because he was experiencing his life's vision: a beautiful, supportive wife, bright, successful children, a new generation of grandchildren, a successful career, high regard from his colleagues near and far--great accomplishment in the issues that matter. Thank you, Al, for being part of each of our lives. You live on in so many ways!

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