2023 Celebration of Excellence Highlights Powerful Illinois CS Community

Teaching Assistant Professor and Product Design Lab Director Molly Hathaway Goldstein


2023 Celebration of Excellence Highlights Powerful Illinois CS Community

On Friday, April 21, more than 400 people gathered at the Illini Union to celebrate everything Illinois Computer Science has achieved over the last year.

By Aaron Seidlitz

After another incredible year at Illinois Computer Science, countless examples of the department’s “talent and excellence at scale” – as Department Head and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, Nancy M. Amato, stated – were on display at the 2023 Celebration of Excellence.

About 90 Illinois CS undergraduate students, 45 graduate students, 25 faculty members, seven staff members and five alumni earned awards and came together, in-person, to celebrate each other. In total, approximately 400 guests attended the event on April 21 at the Illini Union.

The Department of Computer Science also acknowledged generous donors, who provided the opportunity for fellowships, scholarships, and awards. Their gifts support talented individuals as they prepare to make their impact on the computer science field.

“In this department, we are lucky to be able to teach, mentor, collaborate with, and learn from some of the brightest and hardest working people on the planet,” Amato said. “Your intellectual curiosity, dedication to excellence, and positive attitudes are big reasons why we continue to be a top computer science department, and why the future of computing looks so bright. “

Illinois CS Department Head and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, Nancy M. Amato, speaks at a ballroom within the Illini Union at the 2023 Celebration of Excellence event.
Illinois CS Department Head and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, Nancy M. Amato, spoke in front of a crowd totaling more than 400 people at the 2023 Celebration of Excellence event that honored undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members, staff members and five alumni for their contributions to the Illinois CS community.

A complete list of the winners and donors can be found on the Celebration of Excellence webpage.

At the event, undergraduate student award winners were celebrated first, followed by graduate students, faculty and postdocs, and the alumni.

Additionally, a few donor milestones were featured during the ceremony:

  • The Chan-Tsai Scholarship celebrated 15 years of philanthropy and has been awarded to 12 undergraduates since it’s foundation.
  • The C.L. and Jane W.S. Liu Award celebrated 25 years of philanthropy and has been awarded to 25 graduates.
  • The Richard T. Cheng Endowed Fellowship celebrated 25 years of philanthropy and has been awarded 31 times to 30 graduate students.
  • The Richard T. Cheng Professorship in Computer Science celebrated 10 years of philanthropy, and it has been held by Illinois CS professor Sarita Adve since 2016.
  • The Saburo Muroga Professorship in Computer Science celebrated 25 years of philanthropy, and it has been held by Josep Torrellas since 2016.

The full festive day also included a cocktail reception prior to the main event, and the Distinguished Alumni Panel discussion earlier in the day at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.

The panel discussion presented current students the opportunity to ask questions of the alumni award winners, including Ankush Aggarwal, Young Alumni Achievement Award winner; Lavanya Iyer, Distinguished Alumni Service award winner; Hanna Hajishirzi, Early Career Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner, and Pen-Chung Yew, Distinguished Academic Achievement Alumni Award winner.

Anil Singhal, Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winner, could not attend Celebration of Excellence, but he did provide a video that was played at the evening event. Iyer couldn’t attend the panel discussion.

What follows is a portion of that Q&A from the Distinguished Alumni Panel discussion:

To begin, what is a piece of advice you have for current students? 

Pen-Chung Yew
Pen-Chung Yew

Yew: I agree; pursuing your interest is perhaps the most important thing – whether that interest lies in the computing industry or academia. Actually, you may think the two are different, but there are some similarities. I view academia almost the same as a startup – you have to propose something, find funding, publish a paper, produce a product. Either avenue presents a good opportunity for you to learn your direction, and it’s up to you to pursue whatever is in your heart. After 20-30 years, I hope you look back and think you have done what you really wanted to do. That’s the most important thing.

Hajishirzi: Try to work on something that is super exciting to you and be persistent. Especially for students who choose to pursue their Ph.D., these are two of the most important factors.

Why did you choose Illinois? 

Hanna Hajishirzi
Hanna Hajishirzi

Hajishirzi: I remember being accepted as an international student here, as well as a few other schools. Then I looked at the rankings. Also, a few friends who came the year before I did, told me good things about being at the University of Illinois. I came here right after I earned my bachelor’s, and I did so without much research background. I knew that I wanted to work in AI but wasn’t sure which area of AI. I learned here what I wanted to do and am thankful ever since that my path started in robotics.

Yew: Illinois CS had a great reputation for High Performance Computing (HPC) at the time I came here. I learned under professor David Kuck, and I truly felt that the HPC era was beginning right here. When I got my PhD, everyone wanted to build the fastest machine in the world. What we called CSRD – the Center for Supercomputing Research and Development – was very exciting, because it secured a lot of funding activity through this goal. I was very lucky to get my PhD during that time and, as a student here, worked on building that machine. That was a really rare opportunity, so I considered it a no-brainer at that time to come here.

Ankush, as an international student that decided to come here and then went back to India, how easy or difficult is it to apply what you leaned here in India? 

Ankush Aggarwal
Ankush Aggarwal

Aggarwal: Me and my dad had a lot of debate about this, but I was always very clear I wanted to go back to India. And I was very, very clear that I wanted to start my own business. In regards to what I ended up doing, much of it is completely different than what I learned in CS – as I ended up in financial services. But that’s something the world teaches you about the wonderful education you receive at this university. It’s not just about the content, it’s that at Illinois you learn how to be good at whatever you choose to do. Life isn’t predictable, and it’s best to be prepared for that.

When you are considering the differences between entering industry and academia, what factors are most important?

Yew: When I was earning my Ph.D., I spent six or seven years building machines, trying to bring them up speed, run applications, etc. During that period, I worked with incredible people who had a lot of good ideas. And I learned that the only way to transfer knowledge is to write papers. By publishing papers, I learned how much I wanted to have a result known to the community. If you have this kind of drive, you can be in academia for a long time and be successful.

I’ve also had a lot of friends who went into industry. There was a thriving startup community at that time, and companies like Intel were dominant. I would say that you have to understand and pursue the interests that are in your heart. If you’re really interested in research, one other good thing about being in academia is that you can shift your focus and try new things.

Hajishirzi: Why am I still in academia and interested in it? I love it! The interactions with students through advising and mentoring, that’s so rewarding. I love to see how students go on to make an impact. At the same time, I’m also a part of research institute where I’m leading a team. I love the meetings with students because they share their purpose and inspiration.

During my Ph.D., honestly, I first saw myself going into academia, changed that thought to industry, but then finished with the impression that I definitely wanted to go into academia. I agree with Pen-Chung, it’s best to love the research you conduct, but it also helps that in academia you can find new areas or a different focus. Who knows exactly what I’ll be working on in a few years?

What factors have contributed most to your success?

Aggarwal: It’s not just what I learned at this university from a technical CS point of view, but also being around a very talented peer group here at Illinois. What they wanted to do and accomplish broadened my horizons. Other viewpoints helped me gain perspective on what I wanted to do. Once you have that, other problems become easier.

Yew: Hard work is the most important factor here, to me. Especially in a field with so many responsibilities – students, colleagues, organizing chair of a conference, etc. It feels like you have to work 26 hours a day to do all that sometimes. Also, I would say it’s incredibly important to find the right collaborator. No man is an island, and to do this alone is almost impossible. As a student, find someone with common interests to collaborate with, and manage your time well.

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This story was published April 27, 2023.