Engineering a Better World: A Year of Uncertainty and Ingenuity

| May 13, 2020

Trojan faculty and staff celebrate virtually during the 2020 USC Viterbi Faculty and Staff Awards


Every year, over 200 faculty and staff of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering gather in Town and Gown for an elaborate luncheon. The occasion is to celebrate the best and brightest among them, for innovative contributions to the USC Viterbi community and engineering across the world.

In 2020, where a gathering of two hundred people seems unfathomable, a ceremony like this had to look a little bit different. 

“Of course, we could have ordered Uber Eats for everyone,” joked USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortos. “Maybe in the next pandemic!” 

How we react in these periods of uncertainty tests our character, our values, and our ingenuity.

Dean Yannis Yortsos

Indeed, Dean Yortsos was unfazed by the reality of hosting a virtual awards ceremony via Zoom, stressing that the coronavirus pandemic meant that USC Viterbi’s core mission was more meaningful than ever.

“With the entire world undertaking an experiment of unprecedented extent and impact, we also have an unprecedented opportunity to innovate and invent; to show our true character and values; and to work even more passionately in our mission to engineer a better world for all of humanity, a goal more urgent than ever before,” said Dean Yortsos. 

He highlighted a number of faculty working on in-progress projects to engineer a better world. Alongside many others, the dean gave a shout-out to Professor Pin Wang, a Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, who is working on development of vaccinations and tests in his laboratory, and Professor Yan Liu, the Philip and Cayley MacDonald Endowed Early Career Chair of the Department of Computer Science, who is tracking coronavirus rumors through social media.

Dean Yortsos also made it a point to highlight the numerous outside accolades USC Viterbi professors had received throughout the school year, exemplifying the university’s nationwide recognitions. 

Of note: professors Mark Thompson, Mahta Moghaddam, Berokh Khoshnevis, Gen (Ret.) Ellen M. Pawlikowski and USC Provost Charles Zukoski all were elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the most elite society in the discipline. National Science Foundation CAREER Awards were granted to Aleksandra Korolova, Daniel McCurry, Haipeng Luo, Mitul Luhar,  Qiming Wang, and Megan McCain, marking a record number of awards in a single year for the university.

Staff Excelling Behind the Scenes

Linda Rock, USC Viterbi vice dean for administration, presented the Staff Early Career Award to Yesenia Ornelas, a financial analyst at the USC Information Sciences Institute. She applauded Ornelas’s efforts at picking up the slack in her department after the unexpected passing of a supervisor.

Vice Dean Rock also presented Jessica Ruiz, an administrative assistant in the Office of Advancement, with the Staff Award for Excellence. “Jessica’s excellent, steady work allows others to perform theirs better,” she said.

Excellence in research

Assad Oberai, Hughes Professor and USC Viterbi vice dean of research, presented awards that honored important research breakthroughs:

George Ban Weiss, the Pasquale and Adelina Arpea Early Career Chair and an associate professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was granted the Junior Research Award for his work in urban land cover and the transportation of atmospheric particles. Eun Ji Chung, the Dr. Karl Jacob Jr. and Karl Jacob III Early-Career Chair and assistant professor in biomedical engineering, was granted the same award for her work using nanoparticles for therapeutic disease treatment. 

Recipient of the Senior Research Award was Shrikanth Narayanan, the Niki and Max Nikias Chair and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Narayanan was rewarded for his innovative work in behavioral signal processing and informatics.

Krishna Nayak, professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received the Use-Inspired Research Award for his advances in magnetic resonance imaging. 

“The fact that our college embraces interdisciplinary research is critical to the use-inspired projects I have been working on,” commented Nayak. “The kind of work that my lab does requires crossing boundaries and crossing disciplines.”

Eun Ji Chung

George Ban-Weiss

Excellence in Instruction

Erik Johnson, USC Viterbi vice dean for academic affairs, granted awards to Trojan professors who had demonstrated exemplary instruction tactics. Vice Dean Johnson presented Kendra Walther with the Dean’s Award for Innovation in Teaching and Education, citing her implementation of active learning strategies in the classroom and her facilitation of workshops to train other faculty in these techniques. 

Steve Lau, M.S. EE ’89, director for Northrop Grumman’s Electronics & Payload Directorate, made an appearance to present the Northrop Grumman Excellence in Teaching Award. “The ability to pair strong ideas with effective communication is a required skill for any successful engineering career,” explained Lau. “This year’s recipient comes from that area of Technical Communications.” He presented that award to Elizabeth Fife

Building the Trojan Community

Dean Yortsos presented the Staff Award for Service to Daniel Druhora, for his work in the Office of Marketing and Communications and his leadership in the “Innovation in Engineering: Design for Global Challenges” course. “Daniel has truly distinguished himself by giving USC students a once-in-a-lifetime experience with this course,” said Dean Yortsos.

The John O’Brien Faculty Award for Service was granted to Nitin Kalé, an associate professor in the Information Technology Program (ITP). Dean Yortsos pointed out Nitin’s work in expanding the ITP program, citing his creation of the Applied Analytics minor, now the most popular minor at the university. “Whether pedagogically, academically or programmatically, Nitin has left an indelible mark on ITP,” said Dean Yortsos.

The final award, the Lifetime Achievement Award, was granted to one who had been presenting them throughout the night: Vice Dean Linda Rock.

Rock had nothing but kind words for the rest of her colleagues: “It’s been such an honor to work for and with you. I’ve worked at a bunch of other places before this, but once I got to USC Viterbi I realized I didn’t want to work anywhere else. I stayed, and it’s always the people that make you stay somewhere.”

See below for a complete list of external awards won by USC Viterbi faculty this year:

Award Winner
Election to National Academy of Engineering Mark Thompson, Mahta Moghaddam, Berokh Khoshnevis, Ellen M. Pawlikowski and USC Provost Charles Zukoski 
Election to National Academy of Inventors Gianluca Lazzi and Neil Siegel 
Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Gisele Ragusa 
National Science Foundation Career Award Aleksandra Korolova, Daniel McCurry, Haipeng Luo, Mitul Luhar, Qiming Wang and Megan McCain 
Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Research Program Constantine Sideris 
American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Heat Transfer Memorial Award Satwindar Sadhal 
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Claude Shannon-Harry Nyquist Technical Achievement Award.  C.C. Jay Kuo 
IEEE Harry H. Goode Memorial Award Carl Kesselman
IEEE James L. Massey Research and Teaching Award Salman Avestimehr
IEEE Jun-Ichi Nishizawa Medal Dan Dapkus
IEEE Leonard G. Abraham Prize Andy Molisch
IEEE Medal for Innovations in Healthcare Technology Mark Humayun 
IEEE Sensors Council Technical Achievement Award Ellis Meng
International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) Founders Award Azad Madni
Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) John von Neuman Theory Prize Jong-Shi Pang
Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) 2020 Rising Star Junior Faculty Eun Ji Chung
IEEE Fellows Salman Avestimehr and Satyandra K. “S.K.” Gupta 
Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) Fellows Timothy Pinkston
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Fellow Roger Ghanem
Ellis Island Medal of Honor Alan Willner
American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering (AIMBE) Fellow Shrikanth Narayanan
IEEE Aerospace & Electronics Systems Pioneer Award Azad Madni
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow Ewa Deelman
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Senior Member Yigal Arens


Published on May 13th, 2020

Last updated on May 28th, 2022

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