Three new faculty members join ECE ILLINOIS

2/10/2014 Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

Three new faculty members - Hao Zhu, Kiruba Haran, and Lav Varshney - joined ECE ILLINOIS in Spring 2014.

Written by Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

Three new faculty members joined ECE ILLINOIS this semester, and all have specific reasons for coming to Illinois.

For Assistant Professor Hao Zhu, it was because she wanted to work in power, and Illinois is the place for power engineers to be.

Assistant Professor Lav R Varshney has family ties to Illinois and wanted to work with students. Associate Professor Kiruba Sivasubramaniam Haran has always wanted to make the move from industry to academia.

Here’s a look at these new faculty members and the expertise they bring to ECE ILLINOIS.

Hao Zhu

Zhu first joined Illinois as a postdoctoral research associate in the Information Trust Institute in August 2012. She was interested in pursuing a career in academia, she said, and especially in power and energy systems.

Illinois is the place to go,” to research power, she said. So, it was a natural choice for her to stay and join the faculty.

“It’s an excellent department,” she said. “I’m really glad that it happened.”

Zhu wrote her dissertation on statistical signal processing, and she’s eager to apply statistical modeling and inference ideas to power and energy systems. The goal: to benefit a variety of data-driven applications with the deployment of new measuring devices such as smart meters.

For example, it might be possible to learn about customer behavior from energy consumption. Studying how people use energy could possibly improve the way electricity is delivered.

On a higher level of the interconnected power grid, the huge volume of incoming data poses challenges for grid operators trying to understand information in real-time. Being able to extract relevant, but hidden, information can improve operational decision making.

In her work, Zhu wants to know, “How can we use that data in a way we haven’t before?”

Some of her research will be in problem-solving, but some will be in thinking of new and creative applications the industry might not realize are possible.

“We need to use our imagination and connect it to what can be done,” Zhu said.

She likes the idea of working with those both in ECE and across the college.

She recently collaborated with MechSE Assistant Professor Leonardo Chamorro, who researches wind turbines and how they react to wind turbulence. They used filtering ideas from traditional signal processing to predict how the turbines would react.

Zhu said she’s especially interested in directing undergraduate research. She worked with one undergraduate student last semester, and he went on to work at a utility company.

“I think that experience helped him,” she said. “I would love to talk to undergraduate students, if they’re interested in power.”

Zhu earned a BS in electrical engineering from Tsinghua University in China, an MS in electrical engineering with a minor in mathematics from the University of Minnesota, and a PhD in electrical engineering from the same institution.

In her free time, she likes taking fitness classes and attending performances at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Kiruba Haran

Kiruba Haran joined ECE ILLINOIS after working at GE’s Global Research Center in upstate New York, where he led the research group that worked on electric machines. He spent 13 years there.

You’d be surprised how many things electric machines affect, he said: wind turbines, home appliances, aircraft, CT scanners, robots, and many more.

“I always wanted to come teach, but I needed industrial experience,” he said.

At Illinois, he hopes to build on the legacy of John Bardeen and his theory of superconductivity and apply the technology in a commercially viable way to superconducting machines. One of his interests is in making off-shore wind turbines cost-effective.

“If you’re going to change the energy mix in this country with new technology, it has to be cost-effective,” he said.

Superconducting machines could also affect the transportation industry, beyond even clean cars and trains.

“Why not have electric airplanes?” Haran asks. He’s hoping to work with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, where researchers are already thinking about this.

Collaboration with those organizations, as well as with industry, is key, he said. That way, he can focus his time on new concepts, leveraging as much available technology as possible, and creating a path for rapidly inserting them into practical applications.

And, he’s keeping in mind that while electric machines have a wide impact, they’re just one key technology.

For instance, electric aircraft need several components (like batteries or another energy source) to be significantly lighter and more compact than current state-of-the-art technologies.

Smaller, lighter machines for offshore wind turbines will help them become more feasible. However, they’ll also need improved blades, a viable foundation, and an economical solution for delivering the power they generate back to land.

“There are a number of challenges,” Haran said. “One is the heavy, expensive direct-drive generator.”

It will take a multi-disciplinary approach to solve them, he said, and he’s looking forward to working with others to make that happen.

Haran is married with three children. He earned a BS in electronic and electrical engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and MS and PhD degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in electric power engineering. He recently became a Fellow of IEEE.

Lav Varshney

Lav Varshney comes to ECE ILLINOIS from IBM, where he spent three years at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York.

There, he most recently studied computational creativity. It sounds counterintuitive, he said, but he and his colleagues created a computer that creates novel, flavorful recipes. The topic has garnered media attention from around the world, and Varshney will attend South By Southwest 2014 in March to demonstrate it.

At Illinois, Varshney is affiliated with Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL) and with the Beckman Institute. He decided to join the faculty in order to work with grad students and teach.

He’s familiar with Illinois, as both his father and grandfather were students here. He’s also attended the Allerton Conference on Communication, Control, and Computing.

Varshney was married in December, and enjoys playing and watching basketball. He’s a longtime Syracuse Orange fan, as he was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y.

He and his twin brother once discussed foul calls in basketball on a long drive home from MIT to Syracuse, trying to understand systematic biases that are present. As a result, they started modeling human decision-making from a mathematical point of view, later trying to understand how it influences larger engineering systems involving people.

Varshney will spend the semester honing in his research interests at Illinois. Some questions he’s considering: Whether you can mathematically formulate the fundamental limits of creativity, how much information it takes to overload humans, as well as possibly studying communication systems online, like Twitter. He wants to know, how much information can flow, despite human cognitive constraints, and how does it influence others, given those limits?

Theories on information overload haven’t yet “seemingly haven’t yet been well-mathematized,” Varshney said, and he’s interested in the answer to, “How do we think in situations where we have more information than we can use?” And how does relevant information get through despite the cacophony of big data?

He’s also researched information theory, with an emphasis on how much information can flow through a noisy receiver. He found reliable communication flows despite noise in a receiver circuit. He’s also studied neuroscience and decision-making, and whether the microarchitecture of the brain is optimal for storing the information it needs to.

Varshney earned a BS in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, and SM, EE, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT.

Share this story

This story was published February 10, 2014.