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Torrellas earns campus-wide student mentoring honor

3/13/2017 11:25:31 AM By Laura Schmitt

A pioneer in parallel computer architectures, Josep Torrellas, the Saburo Muroga Professor of Computer Science, will receive the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring on April 26 at the annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence. An Illinois faculty member since 1992, Torrellas has advised 36 doctoral graduates who have made impactful contributions in industry (e.g., Intel, IBM, and Microsoft) and academia (e.g., University of Washington, Cornell, USC, and Ohio State).

CS Professor Josep Torrellas
CS Professor Josep Torrellas
Known for having high expectations, Torrellas brings out the best in his students by encouraging their progress and being generous with his time. “It always amazed me how diligent he is in spending time with his students and providing in-depth feedback to the whole research process—from idea conceptualization, to writing research papers, to preparing conference presentations,” said Luis Ceze (PhD ’07), the Torode Family Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, a member of Torrellas’ group from 2002 to 2007.

In fact, shortly before Ceze graduated and was to start his own faculty career, Torrellas patiently taught him how to write a strong funding proposal—a key skill for new faculty.

“We iterated many times over that proposal, which was subsequently funded,” recalled Ceze, who was pleasantly surprised when Torrellas shared the funding with him. “Not only did I get the [proposal writing] experience, but I also got a significant amount of research funds that were extremely helpful in jumpstarting my new career.”

José Martínez (PhD ’02), who is a professor at Cornell University, remembers marveling at how Torrellas managed his large group—about 10 graduate students at any given time. “Given the size of the group, I sometimes asked myself if Josep ever slept, and wondered how he could be so focused in all of his meetings,” said Martínez. “Of course, at that time, I was blissfully oblivious of all the teaching, service, and fundraising academics must also do.” 

Another strength that Torrellas possesses is his ability to patiently nurture his students’ progress, by letting them grasp the fundamentals of a research area before expecting them to produce results. Torrellas encourages his students to take courses and attend research seminars during their first year of graduate study, so they can discover their interests.

This approach enabled current doctoral student Raghavendra Pothukuchi to find a problem that went beyond the group’s main area of expertise. “My research on developing efficient computing systems requires expertise from control theory, a domain entirely different from [the group’s] primary area of computer architecture,” said Pothukuchi, who appreciates the support and time that Torrellas invested in him as he learned about a new field of study.

With his big-picture perspective, Torrellas channeled Pothukuchi’s ideas into high quality, practical solutions. “Our interactions kept my research on track, while enabling me to develop keen insights on interdisciplinary solutions.”

During his tenure as a faculty member, Torrellas and his students have made important contributions to shared-memory multiprocessor design, including in cache hierarchies, coherence protocols, synchronization, consistency models, and thread-level speculation. These contributions make it easier to program parallel computers while enhancing their performance.

In addition, his work has improved the energy efficiency of multiprocessor architectures. He has devised techniques to handle process variation and wear-out, and to reduce the power consumption of extreme-scale computer systems.

On a personal level, Torrellas takes a genuine interest in his students’ success. During his doctoral studies, Pothukuchi got married and his wife, a fellow Illinois graduate student, had a baby. “Professor Torrellas was very accommodating to let me and my wife balance our work and personal lives,” Pothukuchi said. “I am indebted for his warm consideration for my personal well-being apart from my academic well-being.”