Shirin Saeedi Bidokhti receives 2021 NSF CAREER Award

Shirin Saeedi Bidokhti (Illustration by Melissa Pappas, Courtesy of Penn Engineering Today)
This article originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today, written by Melissa Poppas.

Humans have never been more connected to one another, though the speed with which we can share with one another has its drawbacks. For example, the spread of COVID-19, as well as misinformation about it, have both been facilitated by our highly connected online and in-person networks. Fortunately, the branches of mathematics known as information theory and network theory can help us to understand how both systems work and how to control them.

NSF CAREER Award recipient Shirin Saeedi Bidokhti, Assistant Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, will use the grant to conduct research on both online social networks and COVID-19 contact tracing networks. As case studies, these real-word examples will inform networked systems’ theoretical foundations, as well as the design of learning and decision-making algorithms that help us to make sense of them. She will also use the funding to develop a new course module that brings information and network theory into practice for undergraduate students at Penn.

Using a combination of tools from information theory, network theory and machine learning, Saeedi Bidokhti aims to narrow the gap between theory and practice through algorithm-informed real-time data sampling, estimation and inference in networked systems. Her work aims to produce smarter algorithms that can extract information, infer about these systems, and ultimately provide more precise control of them.

While such algorithms are already improving our ability to understand complex networks, there is always a tradeoff that needs to be considered when it comes time to use that information.

“In information extraction, knowing when to sample with real-time data makes a difference, says Saeedi Bidokhti. “It helps us to know if we should act now or wait to sample, facing the tradeoff of gathering the most information while minimizing costs to most efficiently control the system.”

To read the full article, visit Penn Engineering Today.

Professor Susan Davidson honored with VLDB Women in Database Research Award

Professor Susan Davidson in Computer and Information Science (CIS), who has spent nearly 40 years teaching with the Department, has been awarded the 2021 Very Large Database (VLDB) Women in Database Research Award.

Sponsored non-profit organisation Very Large Database Endowment Inc., the award focuses on the cumulative lifetime work of the researcher. Davidson was specifically honored “for groundbreaking work in the areas of data integration, data provenance and her efforts in cross-disciplinary research, namely bridging databases and biology.”

“Really it was more that I was one of the early people to help define what interesting topics, there were in bioinformatics,” said Davidson.

The former Department Chair of CIS wrote an award acceptance speech titled “It’s not just Cookies and Tea” that blended the focal points of her life’s work — data integration, provenance and concurrencies — with personal life. The two are often inextricable.

“I talked about my parents and how they influenced where I am today: that was provenance,” said Davidson. “I talked about how i’ve built programs to recruit, retain and promote women in engineering, computer science. You have to integrate, as well as have cookies and tea.”

Davidson’s advocacy for other women, both within the engineering field and without, has also been a defining facet of her professional career. The Founder of Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) at Penn was hoping her speech would also serve as a point of motivation.

“I was also really trying to encourage other women, “said Davidson. “I know that it’s been extremely hard for for women with young children during the pandemic.”

The Women in Database Research Award is one of many presented at the annual VLDB Conference, this year hosted in hybrid format, August 16-20 in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the VLDB site, "this series is perhaps the most international (in terms of participation, technical content, organization, and location) among all comparable events."

The 2021 Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Excellence in Teaching: Professors Susan Davidson and Boon Thau Loo

Professors Susan Davidson and Boon Thau Loo have been awarded the 2021 Ruth and Joel Spira Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Sponsored by the Spira co-founded Lutron Electronics in 2019, the award specifically recognizes outstanding faculty within the C.I.S. department at Penn, and has corresponding awards at universities across the country.

Susan Davidson

Penn Engagement Days: Engineering In 100 Seconds: Susan Davidson
Courtesy of Penn NSOAI YouTube

For Professor Davidson, the Spira Award is the first teaching award she has received in her nearly 40-year career.

“I think it’s especially meaningful because it’s difficult for women in STEM fields,” said Davidson. “Women in STEM fields tend not to rate as highly as their counterparts, because of a certain amount of gender bias.”

The Founder of SEAS’ Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) received her Spira Award “for her critical role in defining our initiatives in data science and databases, and especially for the outstanding job she has done teaching CIS 545 and 550,” according to Department Chair Zack Ives.

Davidson says that it was Professor Loo who pushed her to revamp her CIS 550 (Introduction to Database and Information Systems), and reform it so it could become a part of the MCIT Online curriculum. Doing so required the course to be broken down into smaller, punchier segments: more frequent quizzes, a normally 90-minute lecture efficiently split into bite-sized, twelve-minute fragments.

“It was Boon who basically talked me into it, by saying how much it had improved his course,” said Davidson. “The argument that he used was that his teaching ratings had jumped up quite a bit as a result of that.”

Right in the middle of recording the different aspects of CIS 550, fine-tuning and taking a closer look at how to make it a more immersive experience for students, work-from-home was imposed due to COVID-19. Without knowing it, Professor Davidson was preparing for a complete online transition.

“That’s the second reason I’m very thankful to Boon. he convinced me to do this and gave me the impetus to improve the course and, by doing so, I was very well prepared for the teaching during the pandemic,” said Davidson. “I know the students really appreciated the quality of the recordings: that’s recognition to the online MCIT staff and the program and how well they are able to produce or help us produce our lecture segments.”

Boon Thau Loo

“Boon Thau Loo – Programming Network Policies by Examples: Platform, Abstraction, and User Studies”
Courtesy of NetPL YouTube

Professor Boon Thau Loo holds his colleague and fellow Spira Award winner in the highest regard as well.

“Anytime you got an opportunity to win an award with Susan that’s a great honor,” said Loo. “She’s always the gold standard for me as far as being a good teacher, being very dedicated to teaching.”

According to Professor Ives, the Associate Dean for SEAS Grad Programs “was recognized for his superb teaching and mentoring of students, both inside and beyond the classroom.  Students praise his clarity of explanations, his passion and expertise, and his positivity.”

Professor Loo serves as an inspiration for those with a calling to teach, but who must overcome personal obstacles in order to excel in that calling. He confesses that he did not start his career as an effective teacher: he is not naturally a good public speaker, and his initial Penn course student reviews were horrible.

“I remember my first CIS 505 was a complete disaster. I don’t have a tremendous stage presence,” said Loo. “As a clueless Assistant Professor, it took awhile for me to learn how to teach. I tried incorporate a more personal touch, get to know the students well.”

Professor Loo’s main classroom philosophies boil down to practicality: he emphasizes the importance of group work and communication, and insists a complete educational experience means getting your hands dirty.

“You cannot learn operating systems just by reading a textbook. Students have to learn by doing,” said Loo. “I’m a big proponent of project-based learning. I don’t think, especially in software systems, you can learn just in isolation, by reading a textbook or from PowerPoint.”

Duncan Watts’ “Everyone’s an Influencer” receives the 2021 WSDM Test-of-Time Award

Stevens University Professor Duncan Watts has recently been awarded the 2021 Test-of-Time Award at the 14th ACM International WSDM Conference for his paper titled “Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter,” published in 2011.

Pronounced “wisdom,” the WSDM (Web Search and Data Mining) Conference is one of many presented by ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), and “publishes original, high-quality papers related to search and data mining on the Web and the Social Web, with an emphasis on practical yet principled novel models of search and data mining, algorithm design and analysis, economic implications, and in-depth experimental analysis of accuracy and performance,” according to their site.

Professor Watts, a PIK (Penn Integrates Knowledge) professor with multiple appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Wharton School, received the honor along with project teammates Eytan Bakshy, Jake M. Hofman and Winter A. Mason.

The paper’s motivation stems from a years-old debate in the fields of communication, marketing and sociology: do ordinary folk have the power to spread ideas in media? When Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” released in 2000, asserted that a very specific portion of regular people were the most effective at spreading and magnifying ideas and products, Professor Watts took up academic arms.

“I had been arguing against this idea for some time,” said Watts. “Not that some people are not more influential than others, but just that there was any sort of magical effect, that you could sort of find some ordinary person and they would somehow trigger this massive cascade that would that would change the world. Which is really sort of the the promise of this book, and why everybody loved it so much. “

Professor Watts and team approached the debate with a foundational scientific perspective: if certain people are more influential, then computer science should be able to predict it.

“If it’s true that certain types of people, for whatever reason, happened to be disproportionately influential in the world and disproportionately good at getting other people to listen to them and to change their minds about some issue, you can do pretty well predicting how many retweets someone’s going to get just by looking at how many followers they have,” said Watts.

Right before the paper was published, Professor Watts recalls that mega influencer Kim Kardashian, with roughly 1 million followers, was charging around $10,000 to mention a product in one tweet. The paper proposal offers that focusing on one influencer with a huge amount of followers is not necessarily the most efficient strategy.

“Maybe you want to pay your $10,000 but you would rather find 1,000 people who have 1,000 followers each,” said Watts. “And they might do it for free. Or they might do it for $1. So then you pay $1,000, and you still reach a million people.”

The three main findings of the paper are as follows:
1. It is nearly impossible to predict, with accuracy, the efficacy of influence
2. To the extent that one could predict it, “it’s all baked into the past success of the person who seeds the information, and most of it is just how many followers you have,” said Watts

And the 3rd:

“Under a broad range of conditions, you’re actually better off going with a large number of people who have not that many followers, then a small number of people with a large number of followers,” said Watts. “And I think each of those findings has sort of reverberated.”

Professor Joe Devietti steps into the role of CIS Undergrad Chair

When Associate Professor Joseph Devietti was an undergrad in the Department of Computer and Information Science almost 20 years ago, the pace and scale of the department was drastically different.

“Everything has just gotten so professionalized and competitive. Computing has kind of exploded, across campus,” said Devietti. “Things like the second major from the college is really exciting. To be able to give people other ways into computer science, without having to be an engineer and take physics. Follow that kind of rigid path.”

Now the coding aficionado has come full circle as he takes on the role of CIS Undergrad Chair.

“I think the undergrads that we have at Penn, even back when I was here a long time ago, were really strong,” said Devietti. “I’m glad I don’t have to compete with the undergrads that are here now.”

After majoring in both English and Computer and Information Science at Penn, Professor Devietti went on to get both his Master’s and his Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. With a slew of honors, awards and publications under his belt, CIS Department Chair Zack Ives also notes he is “renowned for his research in using both hardware and software techniques to simplify multiprocessor programming, [and] has also been a successful entrepreneur and an amazing mentor to many undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD students.”

Professor Andreas Haeberlen, whose shoes Professor Devietti will be stepping into, did wonders while serving as chair.

“One of the things I found inspiring about what Andreas had done in his time as undergrad chair was that he had helped a lot with kind of smoothing out these internal business processes,” said Devietti.

In addition to digitizing many paper processes, Professor Ives says Haeberlen also “led curriculum reform across our multiple degree programs [and] personally developed important infrastructure, including the waitlist system that allows us to manage student demand in a fair way.”

With returning to campus and the subsequent readjustment as a top priority, and the nearly 1,000 undergrad students currently enrolled in CIS, Professor Devietti believes the key lies in continuing to focus on efficiency.

“We need to try to streamline things as much as possible,” said Devietti. “I’ve been talking with the advising staff. There are other kinds of opportunities to just help things work more smoothly.”

Adam Mally to serve as Director of DMD Program

It seems the Computer and Information Science department is in the business of cultivating students so fulfilled with their undergraduate experience, that they return to take on leadership roles in C.I.S. Earlier in the year, former C.I.S. undergrad and Associate Professor Joseph Devietti stepped into the role of Undergrad Chair. Now Lecturer Adam Mally, who graduated from C.I.S. in the Digital Media Design (DMD) Program, is stepping into the role of undergrad DMD Director.

“I started off in what’s now called the ESAP Summer Program, a summer program here at Penn Engineering were high school students can take a three-week long course in a particular subject,” said Mally.

When he applied to college the following winter, the DMD Program at C.I.S. was the only application he filled out.

I loved that combination of technicality with the creativity that this provides. I needed to do DMD: this was so much fun.”

Currently, it’s fair to say that DMD’s biggest draw is gaming animation. Many, if not most, students join the program hoping to land jobs with large corporations within the games industry. Mally is excited to expand DMD’s reach: working with newcomers Danaë Metaxa and Andrew Head, who are heading the incoming Penn HCI Group, is a top priority. There is much opportunity in the field of human computer interaction.

“So many DMDers go into the industry as technical directors or technical artists, where they’re developing tools that their teammates need to work with,” said Mally. “Pretty much any tool they developed needs to be usable by some other people and we don’t cover that aspect of software development at all right now.”

Mally is also planning to broaden the DMD curriculum to include a focus on medical visualization. He’s hoping to work with new PIK Professor Kevin Johnson, who holds a joint appointment in both C.I.S. as well as the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine.

“It’s a pretty big field that we’re just not really getting too many people going through right now,” said Mally. “Integrating into existing classes, or at least a particular existing class: a look at how computer graphics can be used in medicine to visualize, or pre-visualize in some cases, scan data. Or even how people use augmented reality or virtual reality to do medical training.”

At the end of the day, Mally believes that the same things that lit his own DMD fire are essentially what will continue to attract new students year after year.

“They have a huge passion for for the creative aspects that DMD allows them to explore,” said Mally. “I want people to have the knowledge to be able to make games, but I want people to have the tools, the skill set to be able to branch out on their own.” 

PCI and Penn Engineering launch Speaker Series to support innovation activities at Penn

The Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) has put together a fall speaker series focused on resources available for Penn Engineering faculty and students, featuring C.I.S. Professor and GRASP Lab Director Mark Yim.  All are welcome to register for each session separately at pci-seas.eventbrite.com.

  • Sept 21: Penn I-Corps with Mark Yim, PhD, ASA Whitney Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director of GRASP Lab, Faculty Director for the Design Studio
  • Oct 13: Med Tech Devices with Katherine Reuther, Ph.D., MBA, Executive Director of the Penn Center for Health-Devices and Technology
  • Nov 10: Pennovation Works and Resources for Startups with Anish Kumar, Managing Director of Pennovation Works

You can read more about these programs as well as broader commercialization news in PCI’s latest newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/pci/august-pci-2021?e=6e7029cb05

“The ability to work with people from different cultures and experiences is crucial”: Lejia Zhao talks global connects with GRIP

Lejia Zhao

Rising junior Lejia Zhao is helping to strengthen CIS’s global connections: virtually working with professor Tang Kuk Zuea from the National University of Singapore on a project titled “Using Machine Learning for Medication Recognition” via Penn’s Global Research & Internship Program (GRIP).

Lejia says applying to GRIP was important to her because of her interest in examining computer science through a global lens, and discovering what’s on the forefront in the field, all over the world.

“What further propelled me to move forward with the program after being accepted was the opportunity to practice my intercultural skills,” said Lejia. “I believe that in this increasingly globalized world the ability to work with people from different cultures and experiences is crucial – both on a personal level and a societal level.”

In addition to the program’s noted flexibility, allowing her to pursue other interests and maintain balance, Lejia says the program also provides an opportunity to connect with a computer science student community outside of Penn.

“Another aspect of the program I’ve really enjoyed is getting to know my peers who are also in the GRIP program and even students from other schools who are also doing research at NUS,” said Lejia. “I’ve gotten in touch with Jennifer, a rising sophomore at Johns Hopkins University who is in the same research project as me working under the supervision of Professor Tang.”


To read more about Lejia’s experience, click here to view her full post at the Penn Engineering Blog.

Prof. Tal Rabin receives ACM’s 30-year STOC Test of Time Award

Professor Tal Rabin is one of the latest researchers to receive ACM’s 2021 STOC Test of Time Award. Co-published with her then Ph.D. advisor, Michael Ben-Or, Professor Rabin’s “Verifiable secret-sharing and multiparty protocols with honest majority” (STOC 1989) was one of three papers to be recognized for its groundbreaking contributions 30 years later. 

This year marks the inaugural issuing of the award by ACM’s Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory (SIGACT), which recognizes papers published in the Proceedings of the Annual ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing. 

Described by Forbes as “a genius for working relationships, which she applies to algorithms as well as team building,” Professor Rabin used a shared attribute of working society to describe the paper’s thesis. 

“Let’s say there are three people and together we want to find out what is the sum of all our salaries, but I don’t want to tell you my salary,” said Rabin. “You don’t want to tell me your salary and we don’t want to tell the third person our salary, but still we want to know the sum of all three salaries. How do we compute functions here?” 

With the function representing the sum of all individual salaries, Professor Rabin’s hypothetical asserts that previous research before her paper could account for 3 faulty parties out of 11, and still provide accurate computations. Professor Rabin’s paper proves that one could get accurate computations with up to 5 faulty parties. One could still calculate the sum of all the salaries, “even if some of the people are trying to foil the computation, or to learn more than what is supposed to be learned,” said Rabin. 

Professor Rabin credits this research, in combination with the works of the other two teams awarded with 30-year honor, with opening up the field of information theoretic multi-party computations. 

“It opened so many interesting questions of how fast can we compute, how efficient can we be? Can we do some things better?” said Rabin. “These results proved to be fundamental and enabled a lot of growth afterwards.” 

According to Professor Rabin, the paper is not only responsible for laying crucial foundations in the computational theory field, but also in her own professional and private life. 

“I’m so honored and happy to be in this group,” said Rabin. “I wrote to Michael, ‘thank you really for suggesting this problem to me.’ I wrote to him, ‘it really defined my life. It impacts my life in a very profound way.’” 

Minchen Li receives ACM SIGGRAPH Outstanding Dissertation Award

Minchen Li

Graduating Ph.D. student Minchen Li has received the ACM SIGGRAPH 2021 Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for his thesis titled “Robust and Accurate Simulation of Elastodynamics and Contact.” ACM SIGGRAPH, with its mission “to nurture, champion, and connect researchers and practitioners of Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques” is one of the foremost special interest groups in the field of computer graphics.

According to their site, “Minchen’s dissertation presents a breakthrough in the notoriously challenging and long-standing problem of robust frictional contact simulation in nonlinear solid dynamics with guarantees of non-intersection.”

Minchen describes his project in more practical terms.

“My thesis is about solid simulation: simulating solid interactions,” said Li. “For example, when we want to simulate how a garment will look and feel when dressed up on a person for virtual try-on or digital fashion design applications, we need to model the interactions between the garment and the body, and also the self-contact of the cloth in the knots and pleats regions.”

Screenshot taken from one of two main research projects in Minchen’s dissertation

The proposed framework is not only beneficial in the world of visual effects and animation, but also “essential for industrial design, robotics, mechanical engineering analysis, etc.,” as stated in Minchen’s abstract. ACM SIGGRAPH has recognized the work as particularly exceptional because while past research has offered mere trade-offs between efficiency and physical correctness, “[Minchen’s] approach combines a geometrically exact formulation for collision gap functions, a smoothed friction formulation making it possible to cast it in variational form, and the use of a barrier-based interior point method for optimization.”

Professor Norman Badler, who is set to retire this year after almost 5 decades with CIS, also received a prestigious ACM recognition: he was elected into the 2021 ACM SIGGRAPH Academy Class. Professor Badler was also on the thesis committee for Minchen.

”Norm is very friendly and kind, and also very inspiring,” said Minchen. “ When I showed him the simulation I got from my method, he was very excited and encouraged me forward, and also provided me [with] very constructive ideas.”

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To read more about our graduating postdocs and Ph.D. students, including Minchen’s full abstract and plans for after graduation, visit our “Graduating Ph.D.s + Postdocs” site.