Eight CS Faculty and Students Receive Engineering, Campus Awards for Excellence

5/10/2020 Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

Eight CS faculty and students won Grainger Engineering or campus-level awards for their outstanding contributions to research, teaching, or mentoring.

Written by Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

Jian Peng, Svetlana Lazebnik, Ranjitha Kumar, Sarita Adve, Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, Darko Marinov, Paris Smaragdis, and graduate student Christiaan Hazlett received Grainger Engineering or campus-level awards for their outstanding contributions to research, teaching, or mentoring students.

Jian Peng
Jian Peng

A rising star in the field of computational biology, Jian Peng received the Grainger Engineering Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research for Assistant Professors. Since joining the CS faculty in 2015, Peng has received more than $2.2 million in external research funding.

Peng designs efficient and effective algorithms that extract meaningful information from genomic sequencing data and from large repositories of experimental data generated by high-throughput techniques in proteomics and biotechnology.

Algorithms developed by Peng and his collaborators have been successful in six scientific challenges, including the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) in 2010 and 2016.  

He is perhaps best known for his research on protein structure and function prediction and protein design. He earned two highly competitive research grants to support this work—a 2016 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a 2017 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

He also received the highly prestigious 2020 International Society of Computational Biology (ISCB) Overton Prize for spearheading some of the most impressive contributions to the field, such as applying deep learning techniques to protein contact map prediction, inventing a novel computational framework for simultaneous dimensionality reduction of multiple heterogeneous biological networks, enabling state-of-the-art function prediction and drug discovery, and developing TransposeNet, an approach that translates discoveries from model organisms to human, for which adequate approaches did not previously exist.

Among his other distinctions are the 2020 Donald Biggar Willett Faculty Fellow Award from Grainger Engineering, the 2019 C.W. Gear Junior Faculty Award from Illinois Computer Science, and the 2017 Microsoft Azure Research Award.


Svetlana Lazebnik
Svetlana Lazebnik

Svetlana Lazebnik received the Grainger Engineering Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research for associate professors. One of the top young researchers in computer vision, Lazebnik explores ways to understand images by recognizing and describing their content.


An Illinois CS alumna, Lazebnik (MS CS '02, PhD CS '06) has published nearly 30 journal articles and conference papers and has presented numerous invited talks around the world. Since joining the Illinois faculty, she has received $2.6 million in external research funding.

As the field of computer vision moves away from traditional recognition scenarios involving discrete, small vocabularies of object classes, cross-modal learning from image and text data is expected to be one of the next frontiers of scene understanding. Lazebnik has made several key contributions to image-language understanding.

For example, she introduced one of the first benchmarks and standard datasets for visual grounding—Flickr30K Entities—which she co-developed with professor Julia Hockenmaier and has become standard in the community.

She and her students have also developed systems for advanced applications such as automatic image captioning, visual question answering, and visual dialog.

Among her accolades, Lazebnik has received a 2008 NSF CAREER award, 2009 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship, 2013 Sloan Research Fellowship, and the 2016 Longuet-Higgins Prize at the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), which is awarded to a paper from 10 years before that had the most significant impact on computer vision research.

She has served as a program chair for the 2012 European Conference on Computer Vision (ECCV) and 2019 International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV). She currently serves as an editor in chief of the International Journal of Computer Vision (IJCV).


Ranjitha Kumar
Ranjitha Kumar

Ranjitha Kumar received the Rose Award for Teaching Excellence. In the last five years, she has created and taught five new courses, including (CS498RK) The Art of Web Programming and (CS199RK) Research with Design, Data and the Web. With each course she develops, her goal is to bridge academia and industry; integrate design, research and entrepreneurship into CS education; and increase student diversity.


A former founder and chief scientist of a Silicon Valley startup, Kumar also helped implement the new bachelor’s degree program in Innovation, Leadership, and Engineering Entrepreneurship, a dual-degree program for Grainger Engineering students. She has taught the ILEE introductory seminar each semester since spring 2018.

Her dedication to undergraduate education extends beyond CS and Grainger Engineering. She created and implemented a joint project between CS and the School of Art & Design called the Underground Unicorn Program (UUP)—a reference to the tech industry’s desire for more individuals (unicorns) who possess the highly sought after skills of design and development.

The UUP program is run like a start-up incubator, where students design, develop, and deploy user facing products based on their research. One student project about fashion chatbots resulted in a research paper presented at a prestigious conference. Another group’s project built a mobile and VR app for apartment tours and interior design, resulting in a startup which is working with property management companies.

Kumar has advised 18 undergraduates, including some of whom are pursuing doctoral degrees at Illinois and Berkeley or are working for companies like Uber, Google, and Microsoft.

Among her other achievements, Kumar won the 2019 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research, 2018 NSF CAREER Award, 2017 Amazon Research Award, 2017 Google Faculty Research Award 2017. In 2015, she made the U of I campus List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students for her CS 199RK course.

Sarita Adve
Sarita Adve

An internationally known figure in computer architecture, Sarita Adve received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. During her 21 years at Illinois, Adve has mentored nearly 50 young scholars—13 PhD, 11 MS, and 17 undergraduate students and seven visiting scholars or post-docs. She has also served on the thesis committees of 45 graduate students.

Adve’s mentoring philosophy revolves around expecting excellence, encouraging collaboration, and sharing her time and feedback with students from the selection of research problems to finding innovative solutions.  

Her students are productive and influential, having won the department’s top computer architecture and outstanding PhD thesis awards, while others have held prestigious nationally competitive fellowships like Intel, Hertz, and Qualcomm. Four of her students have been selected to participate in the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, where 200 young computer scientists and mathematicians from around the globe attend a weeklong event with award-winning luminaries from the field.  

After completing their degrees, Adve’s students have achieved success in their professional careers. For example, some of her former students have landed positions at leading universities (University of Wisconsin and Rice University) and companies (Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm).

Throughout her Illinois career, she has been an exemplary role model for her students and junior faculty, having received awards like Illinois’ University Scholar, Sloan Fellowship, ACM SIGARCH Maurice Wilkes Award, Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision award, and being named a Fellow of ACM and IEEE.

She received the ACM/IEEE CS Ken Kennedy award, which recognizes an individual with outstanding achievements in programmability or productivity in high-performance computing along with significant community service or mentoring contributions.

More recently, she was the first CS Illinois faculty member elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest and most prestigious honor societies in the country. She also co-founded the CARES movement, winner of the Computing Research Association’s distinguished service award,  to address harassment and discrimination in computer science conferences.


Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider
Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider

Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider received the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching for his enthusiastic instruction and creative course innovations, particularly of courses that enroll large numbers (400-1,000) of students.


Since joining the CS faculty in 2013, Fagen-Ulmschneider has taught a range of courses including introductory-level courses (CS 105, CS 107), data structures (CS 225), system programming (CS 241), data visualization (CS 205/305), and he created a series of three online MOOCs providing foundational background knowledge for prospective graduate students looking to join the Masters of Computer Science program.

In every class he teaches, Fagen-Ulmschneider builds mechanisms by which students can go beyond scripted assignments to apply their new skills in innovative ways.  For example, in one of many creative assignments in CS 225: Data Structures, students learn new data structures through creating a program that turns the photos on their phone, iCloud, or Google Photos into an image mosaic made entirely with images they have taken. 

He has contributed to the overall educational community by sharing the tools he developed for his courses, including a novel queuing system that facilitates students getting help from lab assistants in a very large course. This tool has been deployed in dozens of courses across five departments and in three advising offices campus wide, and it has been shown to improve student satisfaction and performance in programming assignments and on exams.

Outside of the classroom, Fagen-Ulmschneider publishes data visualizations that provide interactive exploration of data, including work on the grade distributions at Illinois and tracking the spread of COVID-19.   His work has been featured in Popular Mechanics, The Verge, Gizmodo, has been used by multiple governors in press briefings, and has been viewed by millions of readers.

Overall, he has mentored several hundred undergraduate students and many James Scholars, and he has served as a Pursuing Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) faculty mentor for the last two years. He has also earned several grants to support instruction and curriculum design totaling more than $250,000, including a Campus Innovation Grant from the Office of the Provost.

Fagen-Ulmschneider routinely appears on the campus List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students, he has won the Grainger Engineering Collins Award for Innovative Teaching and the department’s Scott H. Fisher Computer Science Teaching Award, and he was an invited participant at the National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education conference.


Darko Marinov
Darko Marinov

Darko Marinov received the Campus Award for Excellence in Guiding Undergraduate Research. An expert in software engineering, Marinov studies and improves how teams of people build software with an emphasis on improving software quality through testing. 


Since joining the CS faculty in 2005, Marinov has welcomed more than 35 undergraduate students into his research group. To date, nearly 20 of these students have gone on to pursue graduate degrees at some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

As an example of the caliber of work that Marinov encourages and supports, one of these students helped develop novel tools that can detect or fix so-called flaky tests, which are a major concern for companies such as Facebook.

Two years ago, Marinov co-initiated a summer research program for undergraduates in CS, which attracted more than 50 students. He has made multiple appearances on the campus List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Students, and he also received the Engineering Council Excellence in Advising Award.


Paris Smaragdis
Paris Smaragdis

Paris Smaragdis received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Teaching. After a successful career in industry, Smaragdis joined the CS faculty in 2010 and quickly made his mark by aligning and developing curricula that spans both the CS and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) departments.


For example, he created CS 598, Machine Learning for Signal Processing, which covers the fundamentals that enable machines to understand complex real-world signals, such as speech, images, movies, music, biological and mechanical readings. Other universities—Carnegie Mellon and Denmark Technical—have used this course as a model for their own curricula development.

This interdisciplinary approach is also a hallmark of his teaching. Smaragdis has incorporated alternative teaching techniques like a flipped classroom, mini hackathons, and teaching through live coding into his CS 498 Audio Computing Lab course. His innovative approach has improved student learning and has resulted in exceptional 5.0 and 4.9 instructor ratings, which is almost unheard.

With a research focus of making machines that can listen, Smaragdis currently guides the work of five graduate students and has graduated more than a dozen PhD and MS students. He holds 40 U.S. patents, many of which were issued with his graduate students as co-inventors. In 2015, he was elected an IEEE Fellow for contributions to audio signal processing, computer audition, and machine learning.

His engaging and innovative teaching extends beyond the Illinois campus. His tutorials on non-negative processing of audio and speech signals have been the most highly attended events at the ICASSP and INTERSPEECH international conferences.

Christiaan Hazlett
Christiaan Hazlett

Graduate student Christiaan Hazlett received the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Hazlett is a teaching assistant for CS 233: Hardware Architecture, taught by CS faculty member Geoffrey Herman.

In his first semester as a teaching assistant, Hazlett helped revamp the lab grading system to work with a new way for students to submit their projects, which required him to learn the course material and work with a team of undergraduate course assistants to address issues with auto-grading for the roughly 350 students who take the class each semester.

Hazlett also helps lead weekly discussion sections and holds office hours and exam review sessions.  In early 2019, he won an Outstanding TA award from Illinois Computer Science, and in the fall of that year, he began working on his master’s thesis which has produced a new visual datapath simulation tool to help students learn the course content for CS 233.

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This story was published May 10, 2020.