Krishna recognized as a 2018 Siebel Scholar

10/25/2017 Joseph Park, ECE ILLINOIS

The ECE ILLINOIS PhD student's work at the intersection of machine learning, computer security, and energy systems has earned him a spot in the Siebel Scholars Class of 2018.

Written by Joseph Park, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS graduate student Varun Badrinath Krishna’s work at the intersection of machine learning, computer security, and energy systems has earned him a spot in the Siebel Scholars Class of 2018. Krishna is also affiliated with the Coordinated Science Lab. One graduate student in the area of energy sciences is selected to the Siebel Scholars class in his or her final year of study. 


Varun Badrinath Krishna
Varun Badrinath Krishna

The Siebel Scholars program includes some of the most highly accomplished graduates in energy science, computer science, business, and bioengineering. Each scholar receives a $35,000 award and attends the annual Siebel Scholars Conference to discuss and debate global issues. Krishna said, “It’s an honor to be inducted into this club, and I look forward to connecting with other Siebel Scholars at the annual networking events.”


Krishna received his bachelor of engineering degree in computer engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2010. As part of that program, he was selected to participate in an entrepreneurship immersion program in Silicon Valley for a year, during which he interned at a technology start-up company and took entrepreneurship classes at Stanford University. It was through Cleantech events in Silicon Valley that he got excited about the applications of computer science in energy science.

After graduating, Krishna worked in Singapore for the Experimental Power Grid Centre for a year and the Advanced Digital Sciences Center for two years. In both those roles, he developed simulation and analytics tools for smart grid research. Then, he started graduate school at ECE ILLINOIS, where he earned a master's in 2016 and is now pursuing a PhD. He stated that in his time here, “I have enjoyed the world’s best resources for smart grid research at Illinois through TCIPG (Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid) and CREDC (Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium). I am passionate about smart grid research, and I am grateful to my PhD advisor (ECE Department Head Professor William H Sanders) for giving me the freedom to research that topic.”


Krishna (center) with ECE Department Head William H. Sanders and Dean of Engineering at Illinois Andreas Cangellaris.
Krishna (center) with ECE Department Head William H. Sanders and Dean of Engineering at Illinois Andreas Cangellaris.

Krishna had always been excited about creating technological solutions to problems that he cared about. He initially got into energy systems research because he wanted to improve the efficiency of those systems so that their carbon footprints could be mitigated. In order to do so, he did research on the “smart grid,” which uses network communications and intelligent controls to improve efficiency.


However, he realized that such efforts to improve efficiency could be undermined by cyber adversaries who could compromise those network communications. Krishna added, “It’s similar to how cars have now become 'smart,' at the cost of becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. While I still work on improving the efficiency of energy systems, the primary focus of my PhD is on detecting and mitigating attacks on controls and communication networks in power grids.” Krishna’s research is currently funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through the CREDC consortium. Today, Krishna is focused on improving the resilience of power grids to cyber attacks on power generation controls.

As a PhD student, Krishna has done internships related to energy science at the ABB Corporate Research Center, the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, and at Cisco Systems Inc. His work at IBM on improving the efficiency of wind energy integration led to two U.S. patent applications. Earlier this year, Krishna was a winner of the Rambus Computer Engineering Fellowship “for demonstrated excellence in graduate research in the area of computer engineering.” 

When asked which research contribution he was most proud of, he said it was his work on mitigating electricity theft, which causes loss of efficiency and costs utilities billions of dollars in lost revenue. That work was funded by the Siebel Energy Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy. It won best paper awards at QEST 2015 and CRITIS 2015.

Outside of technology, Krishna has made small contributions to increasing the adoption of solar power in Indian villages. He organized a campaign to raise micro loans for those villagers to help them replace kerosene lamps (which are polluting and inefficient) with clean solar power.

Krishna believes that the importance of efficiency and security for power grids is only going to increase in the future. “Global warming will drive efficiency improvements that can mitigate the carbon footprint of energy systems,” he said. “Cyber threats from nation-state adversaries will similarly drive improvements in security mechanisms for power grids, because attacks on power grids can disrupt all walks of life, making the grids a prime target for those adversaries.” Concerning the next steps for his research, Krishna added, “I would really like my research to go beyond publications, and wind up benefiting electricity consumers, utilities, system operators, facility managers for buildings, and generators.”

In his free time, Krishna enjoys ballroom dancing, participating in Illini Dancesport, the competitive ballroom dancing team. He said, “It’s a fun break from work and gives me the opportunity to socialize with the student community at both Illinois and competing schools.” 

Krishna would like to acknowledge those who helped him on his way to becoming a Siebel Scholar. He reflected, “My advisor, Professor Bill Sanders, has been very supportive of my research and I would not have won this award without his support. I would also like to thank professors Ravishankar K Iyer, Marianne Winslett, David Yau (SUTD), Bimlesh Wadhwa (NUS), Ashwin Khambadkone (NUS), my friends, and my family for the important roles they played in helping me pursue my passions in energy research.”

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This story was published October 25, 2017.