"A Ph.D. Is Our Call to Action" USC Viterbi School of Engineering's 2019 Ph.D. Hooding and Awards ceremony

by Adam Smith / Images: Victor Leung

On May 9, 2019, 145 USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidates arrived at Bovard Auditorium, bearing tricolored, 4-foot long hoods.

They would emerge, two hours later, as freshly hooded Ph.D.s, doctors of philosophy – the culmination of years of “relentless efforts in teaching and research.”

Each of you will be called to reimagine this world, as something better than it is. To create the world that never was." — Dean Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
After today, we can remove from you the word 'candidates.' You will become truly doctors of philosophy — by the way, this does not mean you are philosophy majors, but it does refer to the ancient Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), meaning: love (pursuit) of wisdom. And this is what a Ph.D. is all about."
You will join a very select few: According to the most recent U.S. census data, just over 1 percent of the U.S. population holds a Ph.D."
"One of them, by the way, is a fellow by the name of Andrew Viterbi, who just over 50 years ago created the Viterbi Algorithm – the “killer app” behind digital communications, voice recognition and DNA sequencing among others. Truly, you are a very valuable resource to the world, and I know the road here was not an easy one.” — Dean Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
“I urge you, my fellow Ph.D. graduates, to reflect on this question: what does this degree mean to you? The answer I like most is that a Ph.D. is our call to action.” — Shanyuan Niu (speaker, 2019 Ph.D. Hooding and Awards ceremony)

"The past decades have seen profound impacts on how we interact with nature and how we interact with each other. We’re living in an ever-changing world. A world that awaits further innovation to extend the 4th Industrial Revolution, to obtain sustainable development and solve society’s grandest challenges."

Shanyuan Niu (On his fondest Ph.D. memories):

“We would brainstorm and talk about all the craziest ideas – ranging from the latest display technology for smartphones to the transition from homo sapiens to homo deus. There was one debate, though, I really remember. It was about one of the grandest challenges for a society: how to stop the Night King.”

Dean Yannis Yortsos (left) and William Ballhaus, Jr. (right), namesake of the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize For Excellence In Graduate Engineering Research

The finalists for the 2019 USC Viterbi Ph.D. best dissertation award – the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research:

Shanyuan Niu (2019 winner, William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize For Excellence In Graduate Engineering Research)

Materials Science

Dissertation Chair: Jayakanth Ravichandran, assistant professor, Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Dissertation Title: Perovskite Chalcogenides: Emerging Semiconductors for Visible to Infrared Optoelectronics

“Shanyuan has a clear head and puts enormous emphasis on values. With his intellect and excellent attitude, I have no doubt that he will go on to do great things in the future!” – Assistant Professor Jayakanth Ravichandran

“My research is in the big, fun space between materials science, physics, chemistry, and technologies that control the interaction of electrons and light." — Shanyuan Niu

"My Ph.D. work focuses on developing new semiconductors for applications in renewable energy and electronics. It mainly includes the design and synthesis of novel materials and devices, and tailoring their property to improve solar energy conversion, light emission, and infrared sensing.”

Image: Nature Photonics (inside cover art) - illustration of one of Niu's materials: "The material has a world record high birefringence value."

Brendan Colvert (2019 finalist, William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize For Excellence In Graduate Engineering Research)

Aerospace Engineering

Dissertation Chair: Professor Eva Kanso, Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering

Dissertation Title: Physics-based and data-driven models for bio-inspired flow sensing and motion planning

Brendan Colvert (center) with fellow students in the lab of Eva Kanso (far right), Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering and Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
“As a graduate student, Brendan [Colvert] was in a league of his own. On the basis of his outstanding achievements to date, I believe that he is destined for great accomplishments in engineering and science.” — Professor Eva Kanso

“Imagine you are a blind fish. How would you figure out where to look for food or how to find your friends?” — Brendan Colvert on his Ph.D. research.

blind Mexican cave fish

“There are some fish that don’t even need eyes because they have special organs that let them figure out what is around them just by sensing the movement of the water on their skin. We are trying to learn more about how these fish do this so that we can make underwater robots smarter.”

Yuan Hu

Yuan Hu (2019 finalist, William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize For Excellence In Graduate Engineering Research)

Astronautical Engineering

Dissertation Chair: Professor Joseph Wang

Dissertation Title: Kinetic Studies of Collisionless Mesothermal Plasma Flow Dynamics

“Humans have been dreaming about getting to Mars since we first landed on the Moon half a century ago." — Yuan Hu

"The extremely long distance between Earth and Mars puts so many challenges on the journey to Mars. One of them is the demand for very fuel-efficient propulsion devices so that more cargo can be delivered to Mars.”

“Electric propulsion (EP) is considered to be the game changing technology for human missions to Mars. An EP device usually uses plasma, ionized gas with approximately equal amount of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons, as its propellent.”

“Theoretical calculations have shown that people can get to Mars within several weeks with equipped by EP, while it will at least 6 months by using the even the most powerful chemical rocket.”

Dr. Hu's dissertation is the first detailed investigation of both the microscopic kinetics and macroscopic flow dynamics related to plasma thruster plumes and spacecraft plasma flows. His research identified for the first time the limitations of the commonly used electron thermodynamic and fluid models for electric propulsion and spacecraft charging applications." – Professor Joseph Wang

“A key to the success of this advanced propulsion technology is to understand its inherent complex plasma flow phenomena. My dissertation utilizes the state-of-art computer particle simulations to tackle those physics challenges as well as to help the engineering design." – Yuan Hu

Wolfgang Hoenig (2019 finalist, William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize For Excellence In Graduate Engineering Research)

Computer Science

Dissertation Chair: Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian

Dissertation Title: Motion Coordination for Large Multi-Robot Teams in Obstacle-Rich Environments

Wolfgang’s research provides a scaffold on which to build systems for coordinating multiple robots so that in the future, we can have more robots working together while providing stronger safety guarantees and better performance." — Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian

My most unforgettable USC Viterbi moment:

“The first time I heard the sound of 49 robots – that my research focuses on – flying together. It sounds a little like a bee hive.”

“My research focuses on providing scalable algorithms that can plan the motions of hundreds of robots in maze-like environments, while still allowing robots to dynamically respond to changes in their environment.”

“Motion coordination of robotic teams is a fundamental problem in real-world applications such as search-and-rescue, spacecraft operation, warehouse automation, and entertainment.”

Jenny Wang Excellence in Teaching Award

  • Santiago Carvajal
  • Samuel Goldman
  • Nicolas Hartel
  • Po-Han Huang
  • Davi Marco Lyra Leite
  • Parv Patel
  • Mohammad Sowlat
  • John Tran
Victoria Sun receives her Ph.D. hood from faculty advisor, Andrea Armani, Irani Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science

Best Research Assistant Award

  • Yuta Ando
  • Daniel Depew
  • Ariyan Kabir
  • Yang Liu
  • Rebecca Peer
  • Bryan Wilder
From left to right: Dean Yannis Yortsos; newly hooded Ph.D., Goli Dianat; and her faculty advisor, Associate Professor Malancha Gupta, Jack Munushian Early Career Chair

Viterbi Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award

  • Jonathan Wang
From left to right: Dean Yannis Yortsos; newly hooded Ph.D., Magdalene Ante; and her faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Birendra Jha

Outstanding Mentor Award

  • Nathan Bartley
Diane Demetras, director of student services (Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) sings the Alma Mater to close the 2019 Ph.D. Hooding and Awards ceremony.
Created By
Adam Smith


Victor Leung

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