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New award honors promising PhD students

Research filler

A new UIC Engineering award recognizes top doctoral students for groundbreaking research across a wide range of fields, which this year include medical diagnostics, power sources for electric vehicles, and robots.

Called the Graduate Student Award for Exceptional Research Promise, it is given to PhD students who are within a year of graduating and have demonstrated excellence in scholarship, academic publication, and other research-focused activities.

The first seven honorees—representing all six College of Engineering departments—received their awards last week.

This recognition goes hand in hand with a core part of UIC’s research mission: training the next generation of research scientists, said Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Venkat Venkatakrishnan

“When our students take up careers in research, in both academia and research labs, and become thought leaders in their fields, they are furthering the impact of UIC’s research,” he said. “Ensuring that our students pursue careers in research is an important activity in establishing the legacies of our faculty, research groups, and departments.”

College of Engineering Dean Peter Nelson praised the first set of winners.

“These initial recipients have set a high bar for this newly established award,” he said. “I look forward to following their research careers in the years ahead.”

Venkatakrishnan added that he hopes the awards give the students further momentum as they look toward the next stage of their careers.

This year’s winners include:


Minhaj Alam studies new imaging and diagnostic eye technologies that can help doctors diagnose and treat different diseases. He is working with Richard and Loan Hill Professor Xincheng Yao in the biomedical optics and functional imaging lab. Alam’s work includes quantitative analysis of retinal images, developing imaging biomarkers connected to morphological changes in a person’s retina, and artificial intelligence-based automated classification of retinopathies, such as diabetic retinopathy and sickle cell retinopathy. “It is really great to be appreciated for my hard work,” Alam said. “This award focuses on the most important aspect of a PhD study, the research.” Alam is set to graduate this summer and has accepted a postdoctoral research position at Stanford University for the fall.

Chemical Engineering

Leidy Nallely Jimenez is becoming an expert in rheology, the study of the flow of materials. She received her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from UIC and now works with Associate Professor Vivek Sharma on extensional rheology of polyelectrolytes and other fluids, capillary breakup, and other rheology phenomena. Jimenez said her research has also intersected with complex fluids such as paints, cosmetics, food products, and nail polishes. She plans to finish up your graduate studies this summer. Jimenez has published five research papers so far in her career, including one in Physics of Fluids that characterized the influence of salt on flow behavior in the food thickener cellulose gum. “When I won the award, I felt very humbled and honored,” Jimenez said. “I have tried to work very hard and I feel like UIC has been a big part of my life.”

Civil and Materials Engineering

Girish Kumar is developing a coupled thermo-hydro-bio-mechanical model that can realistically simulate waste behavior in bioreactor landfills. The models can be used to develop guidelines and recommendations for safely and effectively designing and operating landfills. Kumar’s research has been featured in noteworthy journals and recognized with external scholarships and awards. “My long-term goals are to enter academia and conduct research related to geoenvironmental engineering that encompasses engineering problems related to both geotechnical and environmental issues,” he said. “I intend to also find a balance and be actively engaged with the industry to identify the relevant and pressing problems and collectively develop a practical, feasible, and sustainable solutions to them.”

Computer Science

Abhinav Kumar believes that computers should be designed to account for human behavior. His work, advised by Professor Barbara Di Eugenio, is a natural-language interface for creating data visualizations, in this case based on a Chicago crime database. A user simply poses a question: “show me the total crime near Sox Park in winter,” for example, or “I want to see felonies in Lincoln Park in 2019.” A point of a finger calls forth a bar graph, pie chart, or map that illustrates the requested data. Kumar says the system uses contextual information and was programmed using transcriptions of real conversational data. Kumar worked in tech consulting prior to starting the UIC PhD program but wanted to pivot to research and development. While at UIC, Kumar was an intern at Samsung Research on a team that worked on algorithms for Bixby, the company’s voice-powered digital assistant. After graduation, Kumar hopes to return to industry and remain at the intersection of artificial intelligence and natural language processing.

Electrical and Computer Engineering

Nikhil Kumar, advised by Professor Sudip Mazumder, is developing a high-powered supercharger for electric vehicles. It would represent a significant improvement over conventional products, charging a vehicle in 30 minutes to allow 300 to 400 miles of driving, compared with current products that require half a day to achieve a charge that allows a 250- to 300-mile range. Kumar’s product would meet a power level of 60 kilowatts, weigh about 24 pounds, and cost $3,000 to produce. Kumar’s research team built a 20-kilowatt prototype last year and hopes to scale up to the 60-kilowatt target by the end of 2020. After he graduates, Kumar hopes to work in research and development for a company that makes electric vehicle chargers, putting his UIC research to use in industry.

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Tara Foroozan has a record of promising research, demonstrated by publications in high-impact journals, conference presentations, filed patents, and funded proposals. The topic of her research? Metal batteries and the challenges associated with them. “I was really excited to win such competitive award,” she said. “It was my first award during my graduate studies, and I am happy that I received it very close to my PhD defense, as it justifies that my efforts during these years have been highly valuable.” Foroozan is advised by Professor Reza Shahbazian-Yassar in UIC’s Nano Engineering Lab, where she appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with her peers, has access to instrumentations for performing research, and enjoys the freedom to express ideas. “My goal as a researcher is to be a useful member of a R&D team in industry and perform applicable research addressing real-life challenges,” she said.

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Ali Zamani studies robotics, focusing on motion control and planning of legged robots, especially one-legged hopping robots and two-legged walking robots. Legged robots have yet to achieve the dexterity and nimbleness of human and animal movement, and Zamani’s research aims to close the gap. In a short span, Zamani has published five papers in peer-reviewed journals and eight peer-reviewed conference papers, earning him more than 75 citations in other researchers’ papers. “My goal as a researcher is to continue discovering new ideas and contributing to the breadth of knowledge in the field of robotics,” he said. “I want to increase scientific knowledge of the technology needed for robots to perform such functions as deliveries, search-and-rescue, and healthcare.”