Shri Narayanan Named Inaugural Holder of the Niki and C.L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering

| February 17, 2017

The chair, established by anonymous donors, honors in perpetuity, the Nikias’s legacy

USC President C.L. Max Nikias second from right) with his wife Niki, Dean Yannis Yortsos, and Shri Narayanan far left). Photo by: Steve Cohn © 2017

On Feb. 15, Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering Professor Shri Narayanan was installed as the inaugural Niki and C.L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering before a crowd of about 100 friends and colleagues in the Ming Hsieh Boardroom at Ronald Tutor Hall. For USC President Nikias and his wife Niki, the moment was a personal one. The Niki and Max Nikias Chair in Engineering ties in perpetuity their name with USC Viterbi. And it was seventeen years ago that President Nikias, then himself a professor in Electrical Engineering, recruited Shri to the university.

“One of my most enduring and heartfelt achievements while at the Viterbi School was to help recruit Shri,” Nikias said. “Seventeen years ago, one could not overestimate his towering intellect and creativity.”

Narayanan’s lab, the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (SAIL), works on a variety of interdisciplinary projects aimed at improving society and the human condition. From identifying gender bias in media, to helping therapists better evaluate patients, to improving autism diagnoses in children, his work embodies what engineering is truly about – making the world a better place.

Narayanan’s work tackling gender bias has been his most recent success story. He and his lab teamed up with Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to develop a new technology that uses signal processing to quickly identify the gender of actors on screen and compare talking time between male and female characters.

In analyzing 200 Hollywood movies from 2015, they found that women were on screen less than half as often as men and spoke less than half as much. More surprisingly, they discovered that even when a woman was speaking, more often than not it was a man who was on screen. All of this despite the fact that in 2015, movies with a female lead out-grossed their male-led counterparts. The team’s results were published late last year.

Narayanan has been honored and recognized numerous times. A Fellow of a number of professional societies including the IEEE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was earlier this year named to the National Academy of Inventors, and prior to his new appointment he held the Andrew J Viterbi Professor of Engineering.

An endowed chair is one of the highest honors a university can bestow on a faculty member. The modern version of the tradition goes back over 500 years and is a position permanently supported by the donor’s endowment. The funding is a way to give extra support to a university’s best and brightest, and can help underwrite research and other endeavors. In rather extraordinary circumstances, the chair’s name honors not the donor, but rather extraordinary individuals who have transformed the field or the institution. This was the case with the Niki and Max Nikias Chair in Engineering.

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos, who kicked off the event, spoke about the importance of “home”, and how Nikias fostered that feeling at USC.

“In 25 years at USC – half of them in engineering – Max transformed USC, his new home,” Yortsos said. “Through countless new buildings, creating a new culture of excellence, and by advancing a compelling and irresistible vision for the university as an agent of progress and change in the world. The new chair, honoring Niki and Max’s transformative impact, will be their “academic residence in perpetuity”. With its first tenant being Professor Narayanan.”

Despite his myriad professional accomplishments, Narayanan spoke passionately not about his work, but his home at USC.

“I still vividly remember the day Max and I walked back from lunch when I first visited USC. He put his arm around my shoulder and emphasized the importance of family,” Narayanan said. “Before joining USC, I had heard of the concept of the Trojan family. After 17 years, I can certainly vouch for it. Niki and Max together have been a tremendous part of that for me.”

Funds for the Niki and Max Chair in Engineering were given by an anonymous donor.

“Today, our hearts are filled with joy, gratitude, and pride,” Nikias said.