Olgica Milenkovic


Olgica Milenkovic
Olgica Milenkovic

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I have been in a number of different areas at the intersection of combinatorial mathematics, coding theory, bioinformatics, and social sciences. I equally enjoy working on very mathematical questions and spending time in the lab, testing intuitive and practical ideas.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I received a MS degree in mathematics and a PhD in electrical engineering from University of Michigan in 2001 and 2002, respectively. My adviser was in the computer science department; hence, my thesis work was a mix of results in computer science (analysis of algorithms), engineering (coding theory), and mathematics (probabilistic transforms for binning schemes). I joined the faculty of University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2002, where I stayed until 2006. Before joining the faculty of University of Illinois, I spent one year at University of California, San Diego, as visiting professor.

Q: You have been at Illinois since 2007. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: I love working and interacting with my undergraduate and graduate students. I had the pleasure of working with some outstanding young minds.

Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: To be perfectly honest, it was not really my own choice to go for an engineering degree. I was planning to pursue a degree in chemistry and biology, but since my family was not very well off, they asked my brother and I to choose the same degree program, so that we could reuse books, lab equipment etc. My brother and I decided that engineering would be the best compromise for both of us, since we were both very fond of mathematics. There are many extremely interesting practical and analytical problems in engineering, and I do not regret making the decision to pursue a degree in engineering instead of chemistry.

Q: How did you become interested in research aspects of your field and what keeps you interested?
A: When I was an undergraduate student in Yugoslavia, I was asked to read a paper by Karabed and Siegel, two researchers in information and coding theory, on matched spectral null codes for modern storage systems. The paper used a number of beautiful results in number theory to devise coding schemes for improving the quality of data representation and retrieval for optical recording. It was the first time that I saw number theory being used for solving an engineering problem and I simply loved it. The paper got me into coding theory, and since coding theory had an exceptionally strong mathematical component (combinatorics, number theory, graph theory, probability theory), I just started working on a number of problems that may be addressed through the use of these mathematical disciplines. These days, my passion is molecular biology, bioinformatics and mathematical biology. I feel that working in these areas gives one a sense of purpose like no other research field does. And a lot of work has to be done to fully utilize engineering techniques and mathematical modeling ideas in systems biology and genomic/proteomic sequence analysis.

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: My work on compressive sensing DNA microarrays stands out. It was the first project where I completed a full cycle from theory to practice and back to theory. My then postdoc Wei Dai, now with the faculty at Imperial College, London, spent endless hours in the Keck Center implementing and testing our arrays. We started off without knowing anything about how to handle DNA samples, even turn the equipment on and off, and ended up getting some really interesting results and the first prototype Hamming DNA microarray.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: I enjoy interacting with the inquisitive and curios students that always come to office hours with tricky and challenging questions. Another thing that I really enjoy is making students discover their hidden talents. Since I frequently teach probability —a difficult subject that a number of students finds highly counterintuitive —I have the opportunity to witness amazing transformations in students thinking processes. Throughout the year, I had a number of students that started with pretty poor performances and ended up doing research related to probability theory or at least acing the final exams.

Q: What made you want to go into teaching?
A: There were many factors, but my love for research set the path for an academic career which naturally introduces teaching as a critical means for sharing and gaining knowledge.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: They are at the center of all my activities. It is so much fun to brainstorm ideas from them, and as they mature, learn many new things and topics they discovered on their own. One of my students, Farzad Farnoud, worked on a highly mathematical problem that took a number of years to solve. It turned out that the question we solved was considered a difficult open problem in a number of fields—bioinformatics and social sciences being two of them. Farzad branched out and found an incredible number of new questions to work on related to the work we did.

Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: I served as associate editor and guest editor in chief for a number of journals, and received recognition for this work. It makes me very happy to see that a number of papers that I handled got incredible reception by a diverse research community.

Q: What are you focused on today?
A: Currently I am focused on Bioinformatics and mathematical biology. It is a great passion of mine, and I will probably try to make a very sharp transition towards this area in the near future.

Q: What does the future hold?
A: No one knows, and that is just right.

Q: What technology that’s currently under development are you most anxious or excited to see completed?
A: I am quite excited about a problem in social sciences related to voting and decision making. I would really like to perform some experiments on human participants, and test some of the ideas we had.

Q: What else do you hope to accomplish with your research?
A: I hope to be able to create a dialogue between communication theorists and biologists that may open the door for collaboration between these two expert groups. I believe that great things may happen as a result of this collaboration.