Soltanaghai is Ready to Build Off N2Women's Rising Stars Recognition

10/27/2021 8:47:16 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

First year Illinois CS faculty member, Elahe Soltanaghai, likes to emphasize the word “rising” when speaking about her inclusion as one of the 10 women in N2Women’s Rising Stars in Computer Networking and Communications list this fall.

It’s not that Soltanaghai isn’t proud of what she’s already done in her relatively brief academic career, through which she’s focused her research on wireless networking and embedded systems. It’s more that she’s inspired to build off her early career achievements through a meaningful approach to both research and education.

Illinois CS professor Elahe Soltanaghai
New Illinois CS professor Elahe Soltanaghai was recently named to N2Women's Rising Stars in Computer Networking and Communications list. She looks forward to working with students on research that connects wireless technology to applications.

And this recognition from N2Women, which came at the ACM SIGCOMM 2021 N2Women Professional Development Workshop, serves as another great barometer of where she’s at in her career and what she has her sights set on.

“What I liked most about this award is the emphasis on ‘rising,’” Soltanaghai said. “To me, this means that there is more to come, and that only causes me to push harder. The award serves as inspiration for me. This is not the end of the road, it’s just the beginning.”

Up to this point, Soltanaghai has established academic credentials that include two bachelor’s degrees from Amirkabir University of Technology in Iran – one for Computer Engineering and another for Information Technology Engineering –a Masters in Computer Engineering from Sharif University of Technology in Iran, and a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Virginia.

Her acclimation to computing dates back even further, though, as she grew up with a father who was a computer engineering professor.

“I could ask him a single question about computer networks or working with computers, and he would talk about it for hours,” Soltanaghai said. “I learned programming from him when I was in high school. We spent hours together coding and making it better. We repaired multiple computers at home together, and that gave me the courage to be an experimentalist. I think he was pretty successful transferring his passion to me, because I knew very early on what I wanted to be growing up.”

Building on her academic and personal experience in computing, Soltanaghai has also spent time as a Microsoft Research intern and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.

Over time, she narrowed her research focus to computer networks due to the ever-changing state of this work.

“I have explored other areas – like security and operating systems – but the fact that networking changes every day is such an appealing part of this research,” Soltanaghai said. “Twenty years ago, networks were mostly connecting desktop computers. Today, every object can have network connectivity from your smartphone to your clothes and shoes, from traffic lights and streetlights to cars, and that drastically changes how we design networks.”

Up to this point, she has worked to connect wireless technology to applications and has developed ways to convert any WiFi device into a sensor.

“There was a huge gap between what the proof of concept is and developing it in a practical system,” Soltanaghai said. “A milestone moment for me was when we earned a major publication from this work, showing that we can actually localize commodity WiFi devices through wireless signals themselves. This was significant because now every WiFi-connected device could sense and locate other nearby devices.”

Soltanaghai said two people had a major influence on her development through the course of her PhD and during her time as a postdoctoral researcher.

First, was her PhD adviser, professor Kamin Whitehouse, and then her postdoctoral adviser Anthony Rowe. Both helped her achieve the necessary technical execution, but, perhaps more importantly, imparted a belief that she could achieve anything with hard work.

This is a lesson she hopes to emphasize to her students as she begins at Illinois CS.

“I look back at my own journey to this point, and I realize how important other people were to my progress,” Soltanaghai said. “I pushed really hard, but I’ve also experienced failure. I tried to find inspiration in those moments to start again. Each time my mentors were there for me.

“So, it’s important for me to be that person for our students at Illinois. I know I wanted to remain in academia because of this relationship. I can be their role model, their support. I want to help them achieve whatever they envision for their careers.”