Award-winning young faculty member Al-Hassanieh's unusual odyssey

7/9/2021 Laura Schmitt

Illinois ECE Assistant Professor Haitham Al-Hassanieh is hoping to return to campus soon after a lengthy and unexpected absence.

Written by Laura Schmitt

A rising star in the wireless communication and networking fields, ECE Assistant Professor Haitham Al-Hassanieh is accustomed to being ahead of the curve in his research and teaching, and he has received some impressive accolades in the process.

Haitham Al-Hassanieh (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)
Haitham Al-Hassanieh (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

As part of his MIT doctoral research, for example, he created a new algorithm that out-performed the long-established Fast Fourier Transform method for processing massive streams of data. His Sparse Fourier Transform algorithm efficiently processes data 10 to 100 times faster and could enhance wireless networks, mobile systems, computer graphics, medical imaging, biochemistry, and digital circuits. 

When he introduced the algorithm in 2012, MIT Technology Review recognized the method as one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2012. Four years later, he received the ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award from the world’s largest computing society, which recognized his work as the best PhD thesis in the country.

More recently, MIT Technology Review recognized him again—this time as an Innovator Under 35 who is changing the future of science and technology through his work on autonomous vehicles.

Haitham Al-Hassanieh and his Illinois ECE students developed sensors that allow self-driving cars to see through fog. Current sensing technology like cameras and lidar are hampered by bad weather conditions, severely limiting the safety of driverless cars. Their HawkEye system, on the other hand, uses millimeter-wave radars to create high-resolution 3D images of the environment, enabling the safe maneuvering of the cars.

There’s one area that Hassanieh has pioneered, though, that he’d prefer not to have—teaching and conducting research remotely a year before the pandemic-induced shutdowns. In June 2019, Hassanieh returned to his native Lebanon to get married. When he and his wife tried to return to the United States, he was told that his visa was delayed.

Thinking that the snafu would be resolved fairly quickly, the couple relocated to Dubai and carried on as they awaited word from the U.S. Embassy. According to Hassanieh, each time he inquired about the status of his visa he was told it was in administrative processing.

As days turned into weeks, Hassanieh began working nights to synchronize schedules with his students who were nine hours behind in Urbana’s central time zone.

“It was taking so long to get things done before I made the switch,” he said. “Initially, my students’ research productivity went down, but over time I managed to figure things out.”

Professor Romit Roy Choudhury, W.J. "Jerry" Sanders III - Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. Scholar in Electrical and Computer Engineering
Professor Romit Roy Choudhury, W.J. "Jerry" Sanders III - Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. Scholar in Electrical and Computer Engineering

Hassanieh’s absence from campus was difficult for his ECE colleague Romit Roy Choudhury, as the pair co-lead the Systems Networking Research Group (SyNRG).

“We were used to spending long hours discussing research, huddling up with students in the lab to overcome technical hurdles, and helping students present their work in the form of papers or job talks,” Roy Choudhury said. “Many of our joint ideas emerged from purposeless discussions in the hallways, over lunch, or strolls [around] campus—all of that is absent.”

Initially, teaching was challenging for Hassanieh, who taught Computer Networks and Algorithms courses during the 2019-2020 academic year.

The pressure of an all-remote work environment eased in March 2020, when nearly all the world’s countries locked down due to the pandemic and his Illinois colleagues found themselves in the same situation.

“The only pro [about my situation] was that I was ready to teach online before the rest of the world,” he said. “I had already adapted to this working from home.”

However, the lockdowns exacerbated the delay as U.S. embassies around the world closed for a year.

Throughout the ordeal, University of Illinois administrators have been advocating with government officials to help Hassanieh obtain his visa so he and his wife can return to Urbana.

Bruce Hajek, Leonard C. and Mary Lou Hoeft Endowed Chair in Engineering
Bruce Hajek, Leonard C. and Mary Lou Hoeft Endowed Chair in Engineering

"Haitham is highly engaging and there is a strong laboratory component to Haitham's research.   It has been amazing to see what he and his students have been able to accomplish, especially in the last two years during his physical absence," said ECE Head Bruce Hajek.   "Haitham's creative work in wireless communications and sensing, in both teaching and research,  is sorely needed in the global race to develop next generation wireless technology."

Although he wants to return to the U of I, Hassanieh admits that the last two years have been an emotional roller coaster.

“The first year it was very hard logistically because I didn’t know how to deal with working remotely initially,” he said. “However, emotionally, it was a bit easier because [we] expected to be leaving any day, so I was very hopeful. The second year things flipped—I knew how to manage logistics well, teach and research remotely, but then my hope started to [dwindle].”

In fact, for two years, he and his wife had their bags packed in case he was notified that his visa was approved and they could fly back to Champaign. Their bags are still ready.

“I hope I’ll be able to come back,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and colleagues in ECE that I miss.”

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This story was published July 9, 2021.