Generous Gift from Family Establishes Lecture Series to Honor Illinois CS Alumnus Utpal Banerjee

1/16/2020 David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Sanchita Banerjee Saxena has taken a step to ensure that her father's memory and legacy will live on at Illinois and benefit the field of computer science.

Written by David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

When Utpal Banerjee died in 2017, members of his family said they were only beginning to understand the impact the Illinois Computer Science alumnus had on high performance computing.

Now, his daughter, Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, has taken a step to ensure that Banerjee’s memory and legacy will live on at Illinois and benefit both the department and the field of computer science.

Utpal Banerjee (MS '76, PhD '79)
Utpal Banerjee (MS '76, PhD '79)

Saxena and her family have agreed to make a major gift to establish the Utpal Banerjee Distinguished Lecture Series in High Performance Computing. The inaugural event will be April 13, delivered by Banerjee’s PhD advisor, Professor Emeritus David J. Kuck.

“It was really important for us to honor his memory at the University of Illinois in some way. The lecture series was something we knew he would be interested in,” said Saxena, who is executive director of the Institute for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “My dad always wanted to engage with new ideas that were coming up, he always loved interacting with both junior and senior scholars and taking part in interesting conversations.”

Dr. Sanchita Saxena
Dr. Sanchita Saxena

Illinois Computer Science Department Head Nancy M. Amato said the gift from Saxena and her family provides a platform for the department to showcase one of the areas in which it excels, and to remember one of its own in a lasting way.

“This lecture series is special because it allows us to celebrate one of our most accomplished alums with an annual distinguished lecture in HPC, a field in which Illinois has long been a leader,” Amato said.

Future lecturers will be chosen by the department, Saxena and Amato said.

“We are excited to host these events, which will provide a perfect opportunity to remind the audience of the great history of HPC at Illinois and assist us in continuing the tradition by bringing top researchers to campus to share their current work,” Amato said.

David J. Kuck
David J. Kuck

Banerjee earned a master’s degree from Illinois Computer Science in 1976 and a doctorate in 1979. While still a student working for Kuck, he developed a method to automatically analyze a loop to see whether it could be run in parallel. What would eventually become known as Banerjee’s Test has since been widely used for developing compilers.

After working at Control Data Corporation – an early giant in computing – Banerjee spent almost 20 years at Intel.

At the iconic chip-maker, he worked in the Software Solutions Group and developed a formal representation and generalization of loop transformation techniques, formalizing the transformation of code by applying a mathematical framework to it.

Banerjee also served as an adjunct professor of computer science at the University of California, Irvine. In the 1990s, he wrote several books on loop dependence and transformations for restructuring compilers. Later, Banerjee was a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Parallel Computing, edited by Illinois CS Professor David Padua.

Banerjee was a fellow of ACM and IEEE, and his influence on the field was profound, but also quiet --  understated like the man himself, Saxena and his colleagues say.

Saxena says her father regularly came back to the University of Illinois to meet with colleagues, and even teach.

Lawrence Rauchwerger – now a professor in Illinois CS but then a graduate student – took Banerjee’s class in the mid-1990s. One day Rauchwerger was busy copying pages out of one of those books at a copy machine in Talbot Lab – to avoid having to buy it as a student -- when Banerjee himself quietly walked in, waiting to use the copier.

Professor Lawrence Rauchwerger
Professor Lawrence Rauchwerger

“I was embarrassed,” Rauchwerger says now. “Fast forward a few years -- I was visiting Intel in Santa Clara where Utpal was working and he gave me three volumes of his data-dependence trilogy and told me that now I will not have to copy them anymore.”

After Banerjee’s death in 2017, Rauchwerger hosted a special tribute to him during the 30th anniversary of the Workshop on Languages and Compiler for Parallel Computing (LCPC) held at Texas A&M, where Rauchwerger was then a faculty member. Banerjee was one of the founders of this workshop.

Banerjee’s work and legacy also were honored in 2016 by Illinois CS with the Distinguished Achievement Award. The award is given to select computer science graduates who have made professional and technical contributions that bring distinction to themselves, the department, and the university.

But in time spent with him, Saxena says her father was seldom if ever Banerjee the researcher.

“We just knew him as my dad, (and) as a grandfather. Both roles which he cherished,” she said.

When Saxena and her now-husband, Somitra Saxena, were dating, he mentioned Utpal Banerjee and his accomplishments in a way that made it clear that his family wasn’t fully aware of all that he had done.

“He was so down to Earth and so humble that he would never even talk about himself in that way,” Sanchita Saxena said. “My mom said that after he passed away, she also didn’t (fully) know his contributions to the field.”

The lecture series, then, will also serve as a way to let Saxena’s sons, 16-year-old Rohil and 13-year-old Sanil, know more about their grandfather, and give them an ongoing link back to him, she said.

“They were very close to their grandfather,” Saxena said. “It’s important to have them see what all he contributed to the field.”

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This story was published January 16, 2020.