Student Excellence at Illinois CS Comes in Many Forms

7/26/2022 8:12:59 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As an undergraduate student with Illinois Computer Science, Timothy Zhou hasn’t shied away from seeking out experience in research – specifically, with an interest in Programming Languages (PL).

Timothy Zhou
Timothy Zhou

The junior CS and Mathematics major said he accidentally discovered a fascination with the field while in high school.

“At the time, I had decided to try and write an interpreter for a toy programming language on a whim. Having virtually no knowledge about PL at the time, I was both excited and surprised when I discovered how much depth there was to the field,” Zhou said.

He began to explore this focus even further while studying at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, along with other math-rich topics in the area like program verification, type theory, and formal semantics.

In addition to his coursework, Zhou currently co-chairs the SIGPLAN@UIUC RSO, and, most recently, earned inclusion in the prestigious Carnegie Mellon REUSE—a summer REU, or Research Experience for Undergrads, specifically devoted to Software Engineering.

CMU REUSE offers a chance for participants to spend a summer working with some of the world's leading Software Engineering faculty researchers.

“I’m in the middle of the program, currently, and I think the thing that has stood out to me the most is how open-ended the research process has been—compared to taking classes, when you are mostly in the mentality of solving problems that have been assigned to you,” Zhou said. “Also, considering my previous research experience was on a fairly structured project, I found it to be an interesting challenge to adapt to an environment where the problem is not necessarily well-defined or known.”

Talia Ringer
Talia Ringer

At Illinois, Zhou works closely with CS Professor Talia Ringer as an undergraduate research assistant. To Ringer, it came as no surprise that Zhou earned inclusion in REUSE and is making the most of his time there.

“Timothy walked right in, was super sharp and interested, and told me had done a lot of work on types and proofs by himself already,” Ringer said. “I couldn’t say no to working with him, and I haven’t regretted it for a second. He takes on challenging tasks, goes above and beyond with time, and contributes really effectively.

“CMU REUSE is a wonderful program, and I hope Timothy will take a chance there to work on a project that’s different from what he would normally work on. I hope he mixes things up a bit, meets amazing people, and furthers his career for whichever direction he would like to take it.”

In the past, REUSE students have gone on to join prestigious PhD programs, publish papers in major conferences, and have won NSF graduate research fellowships.

Manling Li selected as DARPA Riser

In her final year as a PhD student at Illinois CS, Manling Li earned an acknowledgement few who are not already faculty receive – selection as a 2022 DARPA Riser.

Manling Li
Manling Li

DARPA describes Risers as “up-and-coming standouts in their fields, whose research is related to national security and demonstrates the potential to lead to technological surprise — the heart of DARPA's mission.”

Li said she was aware during the proposal process that few PhD students receive this acknowledgement, which caused her to be a bit nervous and uncertain.

But the payoff of earning the status of DARPA Riser, combined with an opportunity to present at an upcoming DARPA Forward event has turned into excitement.

“As a fourth-year PhD student, the recognition by DARPA as a rising star is a remarkable beginning for my independent research career. I appreciate this unique opportunity to enable me to present my ideas directly to DARPA,” Li said. “Through the feedback and the attention I receive, I will be able to focus my research efforts from a very early stage of my career on the research that will lead to breakthroughs, as well as initiating socially beneficial research.”

Heng Ji
Heng Ji

Noting that she has always aspired to become a faculty member, and to lead a team working on open-world structured knowledge acquisition, Li has worked consistently in her area of focus with advisor and Illinois CS professor Heng Ji.

Li is a member of Ji’s Blender Lab, and their research “probes the intersection of Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision.”

Expounding upon her research expertise, Li has planned her presentation at the DARPA Forward Event at The Ohio State University on October 4-5 to key on open-world multimedia multilingual event knowledge acquisition for intelligence analysis and foraging.

“My goal is to transform traditional information access from entity-centric to event-centric, from single-modality to multi-modality, and from static to probabilistic, thereby providing a structured knowledge view that is easily explainable, highly adaptable, and capable of reasoning,” Li said.

To get to this point in her career, Li credited her advisor for a unique approach to learning.

“The credit for this accomplishment must go largely to my advisor professor Heng Ji, as well as our incredible group and our supportive department,” Li said. “Heng is so much more than my academic advisor; she is my role model, my mentor, and my most trusted friend. She has always been an inspiration to me for her desire to continuously strive for excellence, as well as her courage to pursue novel and challenging research.

“Also, I am deeply grateful for the tremendous support from DARPA throughout my entire PhD study, as well as my entire professional growth. I will continue doing my best and dedicating the highest level of effort and devotion to my research.”

PhD students Raghavendra Pothukuchi, Sourav Das selected for Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Two Illinois CS PhD students were selected to attend this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, one of the most unique conferences and networking events in the world.

The weeklong forum in September brings together 200 young researchers with some of the greatest minds in computer science and mathematics—winners of the ACM A.M. Turing Award, Abel Prize, Fields Medal, and Nevanlinna Prize.

Designed to inspire and motivate a new generation of researchers, the forum mixes formal lectures and scientific panel discussions with social events like dinners, receptions, and tours of the surrounding historic area.

Raghavendra<strong> </strong>Pothukuchi
Raghavendra Pothukuchi

Studying quantum computing systems for emerging computational cognitive models, as well as building intelligent computer architectures inspired from the brain, Raghavendra Pothukuchi is currently an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Computer Science at Yale University. At Illinois CS, he studied intelligent systems for efficiency and security with advisor Josep Torrellas.

Upon finding out he had been selected for the Heidelberg Forum, Pothukuchi considered himself happy and a bit fortuitous.

“I was actually in India with my family when I was notified about being selected as a young researcher to attend the forum,” he said. “I’m eager to meet with people who have shaped the fields of mathematics and computer science through their work. Where else would you find such an opportunity to ask and learn how these distinguished researchers think, define their problems, arrive at their solutions while also finding what inspires them, and figuring out what they think are the greatest challenges to be solved?”

The Heidelberg Forum is one more way to encourage Pothukuchi’s research interest, devoted to helping offset the lack of computational power that hampers the effectiveness of cognitive scientists.

“The short answer, in regards to why I chose this research topic, is that I wanted to be part of an effort that can support fundamental advancements in the brain sciences, as well as be able to bring the knowledge of the brain’s computational organization to computer system architecture,” Pothukuchi said.

Sourav Das
Sourav Das

Meanwhile, fellow PhD student Sourav Das is leaning on a years-long interest in mathematics to carve out his own research niche in Cryptography and Consensus Algorithms, under the tutelage of advisor Ling Ren.

His research interest has thrived in the collaborative environment featured at Illinois CS, which Das said has helped him feel comfortable enough to question peers and professors to learn more about the delicate details on technical topics.

“Research on cryptography and consensus algorithms, specifically in secure protocol design, provides me with abundant opportunities to interact with the intricacies of mathematics. Also, the outcome of research on these topics has practical implications, which is the best combination I could hope for,” Das said.

He will attend the Heidelberg Forum having already seen interviews featuring many of the laureates and an excitement to meet them in person.

“I will be attending the event with lots of questions, especially focused on how the laureates approach their research to evaluate the importance of the problem statement,” Das said. “I also want to know how these researchers feel about today’s publication rush and how to address the issue.”

Three Illinois undergrads won first place at Climate Hack.AI

A University of Illinois team that included 2022 Illinois CS graduate Jatin Mathur won Climate Hack.AI, a two-month climate challenge involving 25 universities from the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada.

Mathur said Climatehack.AI was extremely well-designed and had potential for an immediate impact on the climate. It was also a particularly unique opportunity because of its international scope.

The purpose of the competition was to “help improve solar photovoltaic power output predictions.” Participants were challenged to beat the best nowcasting techniques in the UK with models that “could help the National Grid Electricity System Operator minimize the use of standby natural gas turbines, potentially saving up to 100 kilotons of carbon emissions a year.”

“The challenge is to use an hour of satellite data to forecast the next two hours of cloud cover. If we can do this, we can better forecast photovoltaic yield which is largely a function of cloud cover,” Mathur said. “Because the forecasts might be wrong, the UK National Grid allocates a lot on reserve on gas turbines. This helps them meet electrical demand but leads to a lot of excess carbon emissions. 

“By creating a better cloud cover model, we can reduce how much is allocated to the gas turbines on reserve, and thereby reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.”

Challenges like this speak to the reason why Mathur became interested in studying CS to begin with. The first thing he liked about computer science was the “let’s build this” attitude and how easy it was to start doing interesting things.

He also said that he and the rest of the team had years of experience in machine learning (ML) through various clubs and research labs at Illinois. His own experience came through professor Sanmi Koyejo and through the SIG AIDA club.

Together with fellow undergrads Ajay Arasanipalai, Jacob Levine, and Jeffrey Tang, Mathur helped the team endure and thrive in the weeks-long competition to win.

“Participating as a team was both fun and necessary. We’ve all known each other for a while and done other projects together, so we knew what it was like to work together. Only by combining our skills, brainstorming ideas together, and splitting up work could we cover enough ground to take first place,” Mathur said.

He expects that the team’s model will be used by the UK National Grid and hopes to see it forecast photovoltaic yield and begin reducing emissions.

Mathur would like to thank the UCL AI Society for organizing this competition and OpenClimateFix for identifying the problem and creating the dataset for the challenge. OpenClimateFix plans to use the Illinois' team model in its climate change efforts.