He received his M.S. from Syracuse in 1965 and immediately took a leave of absence from IBM to attend Syracuse full-time to earn a Ph.D. (His new career goal was to become a university professor!) He obtained his doctorate in 1967, and had several offers of university appointments from which to choose. However, he was surprised one day to receive a phone call from the world-famous network theorist, Sid Darlington, who wanted Alan to join his research group in the Bell Labs Research Division at Murray Hill, NJ, where he would be allowed to work on “whatever he wanted!” Unable to pass up this dream opportunity, Alan thought he’d spend a couple of years at Bell Labs then move on to a university position. During his time at Bell Labs, he learned many new things (i.e. digital signal processing), and he learned them from giants in the field, such as his colleagues Jim Kaiser and Dick Hamming. One day Alan realized that six years had passed, and although he loved research, he knew he still wanted to teach, so in 1973 Alan came to California to begin a 43-year career as a UCLA electrical engineering professor.
For almost a half century Alan, (now Professor Willson) has been one of the most influential leaders in the field of Circuits and Systems. His contributions in both research and education have been highly significant.
During his tenure at UCLA, he created the first Digital Signal Processing courses in the early 1970s. In 1984 he founded the UCLA chapter of Eta Kappa Nu and continued as its faculty advisor for 30 years. From 1987 to 2001 he also served as Associate Dean of the UCLA Engineering School. In addition to his teaching and research responsibilities, he was editor-in- chief of the IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems (1977-79) and in 1984 was president of the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society (CAS). His 1974 IEEE Press book Nonlinear Networks: Theory and Analysis was a landmark publication that had a major impact in research and education in the area of nonlinear circuits. He taught courses at UCLA in both circuits and digital signal processing.
In 1991 Alan founded Pentomics, Inc., a start-up to which 21 US patents have now been issued, and through which nine of Willson’s Ph.D. students and another three of his M.S. advisees have learned to become inventors and create patents. Moreover, through Pentomics, several patents have been licensed to industry. Pentomics inventions have played a major role in improving various products that have been brought to market.
In 2014 Alan received Eta Kappa Nu’s Distinguished Service Award.
His contributions to education have been recognized by his winning major teaching awards, such as the 1982 George Westinghouse Award of the ASEE, the 1982 Distinguished Faculty Award of the UCLA Engineering Alumni Association, the 2010 IEEE Leon K. Kirchmayer Graduate Teaching Award and the Engineers Council’s 2015 John J. Guarrera Engineering Educator of the Year Award.
His scholarly awards include the 1978 and 1994 Guillemin–Cauer (best paper) Awards of the IEEE CAS; the 1985 and 1994 W.R.G. Baker Awards of the IEEE (for the most outstanding paper reporting original work published in all Transactions, Journals, and Magazines of the IEEE Societies or in the Proceedings of the IEEE); and the 2003 Mac VanValkenburg Award (for outstanding technical achievement) and the 2013 Vitold Belevitch Award (for fundamental contributions in the field of circuits and systems), both from the IEEE CAS Society. In 2014, his achievements were honored by his peers with his election to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. In 2018 he received the IEEE Gustav Robert Kirchhoff Award.
Even though Alan is now Professor Emeritus, he is still pursuing research projects, and these include the patenting of useful results. Alan and his wife, Ricki, live in Pasadena, CA.