P.R. Kumar to retire after 26 years at Illinois

8/17/2011 Nathaniel Lash, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE Professor [profile:prkumar] retired from the University of Illinois faculty after 26 years of service.

Written by Nathaniel Lash, ECE ILLINOIS

Panganamala R Kumar
Panganamala R Kumar

ECE Professor Panganamala R Kumar retired from the University of Illinois faculty after 26 years of service.

Kumar, the Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a researcher in the Coordinated Science Lab, joined the ECE faculty in 1984. Since then, Kumar has distinguished himself in both research and education in the field of systems, which includes control, communications, and computing.

Kumar’s research currently focuses on the fields of wireless networks, sensor networks, and network-embedded control systems.

“I’ve been interested in the convergence of several areas within electrical and computer engineering,” Kumar said.  

He said fields that were once stratified in engineering are now becoming more intertwined. 

“Now, we use a computer as much for communication as for computation,” he said. “For the primary functionality of a car, designing software without bugs is nowadays as important as the mechanical aspects.”

In his research, Kumar tries to understand the big picture.

“I try not to just look only at the tactical side of research, but also the strategic side: examining what the problem is, rather than just trying to solve it,” he said. “That is what has been fun, and I think the students are very into it.”

In fact, Kumar believes his greatest impact is in his students.

“The students are the people who carry forward the torch,” he said. “Illinois students are all over the place, and they’re leading very distinguished careers.”

Kumar will have supervised 30 PhD students at Illinois, and he says those students can be counted among the leaders in industry and academia. For example, his student Sunil Kumar (PhD ‘96) was recently appointed dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, one of the most prestigious business schools in the country. Sanjeev Naik (PhD ‘92) is working at General Motors where he was the lead control engineer for the world’s first hydrogen hybrid vehicle. The others are also leaders in their areas and can be found at such companies as Google, Bell Labs,  IBM, Bolt Beranek and Newman, Cisco, Goldman-Sachs, Los Alamos or the Air Force. In addition, he has students who have gone on to faculty careers at universities such as Boston University, Stanford, Ohio State, UC Berkeley, KAIST, and National Chiao-Tung University.

Kumar has also worked with master’s and undergraduate students. A reflection of his impact on the teaching mission is the fact that he was listed on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students 17 times.

“What I do like is the process of explanation,” he said. “My goal is to make things simple and convey the essentials and simplicity in each subject.”

Part of Kumar’s method is to begin each lecture by asking the students to recap the previous lesson.   “It breaks the ice, so there’s not that awkward silence at the beginning of class,” he said. “It also stimulates conversations. So after that, the students are willing to pop up and ask questions, which is perfect.”

After retiring from Illinois, Kumar will take a faculty position at Texas A&M University. Kumar is looking forward to the warmer climate further south in Texas, but will miss the warm atmosphere of the University of Illinois, as well as its students and faculty.

“Illinois is a little bit off the beaten track, and that actually gives it a certain leisure. You don’t feel like you’re in the rat race,” Kumar said. “I think Illinois has the advantage that people can reflect on things, and do genuine, strong, long-term fundamental research.”

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This story was published August 17, 2011.