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In memoriam: Xinran Ji, 24


Xinran Ji undergraduate graduation
Xinran Ji (Photo/Courtesy of friends of Xinran Ji)

“If you’re going through adversity, keep going.”

That was Xinran Ji’s way of solving problems, according to Jiaming Kong, a close friend from his undergraduate days at Zhejiang University in China.

Ji, a graduate student in electrical engineering, who tragically lost his life last Thursday, is remembered by friends as “amiable, willing to help all the time” and possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of bikes, cars, trains and planes. He could name each model of Chinese railway engine from the oldest to the latest bullet trains. He was someone “always smiling, modest, positive and hard working.”

He showed an “unremitting effort in putting pieces together and making them dance.”

Jiaming Kong

But it was that last part that particularly stood out to Kong, who saw in his friend “a young star who had a passion about his work,” an engineer who showed “unremitting effort in putting pieces together and making them dance.”

Said Kong, “As an engineer at work, I know how often people will cut corners, hack things, and leave a potential for instability risk in the future. Yet I found none of these in his portfolio.”

Honored as an undergrad

Even before entering the USC Viterbi School of Engineering this past fall, Ji had distinguished himself. His undergraduate research in the design and implementation of control systems for quad-rotor aircraft earned him a First-class Scholarship for Excellence in Research and Innovation from Zhejiang University in December 2012.

Xinran with camera

Xinran Ji enjoyed photography, listening to music and cycling. (Photo/Courtesy of friends of Xinran Ji)

Before that, in 2006, he’d been No. 1 in the High School Admission Competition in his hometown of Hohhot, an extremely competitive exam, similar to the U.S. SATs.

His love of building things told the tale of an evolving, gifted engineer. First, there was a simple and elegant feed forward controller model; a car that navigates itself by seeing in infrared; a clock that tells international time in a more human way; and finally, a drone that can park itself, fly sideways and stabilize its aerial position automatically.

According to Danlei Chen, another close friend and fellow USC Viterbi graduate student in electrical engineering, he believed wholeheartedly in the Theodore von Karman quote: “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.”

While fellow students traveled abroad and spoke of tourist attractions, Ji spoke of “automated production lines and advanced FANUC manipulators” during his 2011 exchange visit to UC Davis. Said Kong, “His eyes shined as if he was still marveling at those things.”

Creativity with a camera

And yet Ji was also the model template of the USC Viterbi engineer, one that in the words of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “combines analytical and mathematical skills with creativity and synthesis: A balanced blend of left and right-brain skills.”

An avid photographer, Ji had served as senior press-photographer of the QSC website, a student portal ranked among the top 100 student sites in China. He loved outdoor photography, perhaps owing to his home province in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, an area known for its epic grasslands and forests.

Xinran Ji Photographer

Xinran Ji was an avid photographer. (Photo/Yi Ding, Zhejiang University)

Said Fangyue Zhan, a fellow USC Viterbi graduate student in electrical engineering:  “Photography was not just an interest, but also a way to help friends. I remember it was 3 p.m. in the afternoon when I asked him if he was available to help me take a passport photo. Immediately, he said yes. After light preparation, [camera] angle selection, he took tons of photos for me to pick a satisfactory one, and then edited it. It turned out to be better than a professional one.”

His passing sparked fond remembrances from his friends abroad as well.

A close childhood friend remembered on “Ji was a bike lover; I was terrible at biking. Ji was a model train collector; I was a military model enthusiast. Ji was a master when it comes to automotive performance; I just got my driver’s license. Ji was almost a professional when it comes to photography; I only know how to use commercial cameras. Ji, an existence that everyone looks up to, and I got to know him this way.”

Faculty mourns a lost talent

Among his professors at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the loss of such a remarkable talent is beyond comprehension.

“He was one of the best students I had in class,” said Shahin Nazarian, Ji’s instructor for EE 577A: VSLI System Design. “They were given a very challenging project: designing a general-purpose microprocessor, involving both hardware and software design. His teammates told me he was really the main driver; he wanted to make it perfect. He did the whole divider design – the most challenging part. In the end, his team was the top four among 60 to 70 teams.”

According to Ehsan Pakbaznia, a fall 2013 lecturer who now works at Intel: “His overall performance in my class was incredible. Having worked in industry, I looked at him as a top designer.”

He had a knack for “precise, detail-oriented, perfectionism,” said Chen. “Every time he packed a schoolbag, he’d organize the cords neatly, put them into a small bag, and put the computer back into a computer case and then into the backpack. Out of his hand, lines in schematic drawings were clean and ordered, codes modified with comments, simple and clear.”

In the end, Ji often saw the world through his camera lens. And that world, lovely and imperfect, was one that he perhaps was uniquely qualified to make better.

As much as he loved machines, when he got a car in Los Angeles, his first thoughts were elsewhere.

“For him,” said Chen, “the reason to buy a car is helping others. Once he got the car, he sent friends a message, saying he’s willing to offer a ride anytime. From then on, he often drove roommates to Chinatown or picked up and dropped off friends at the airport.”

To honor his memory, Dean Yortsos announced the establishment of the Xinran Ji scholarship, to be awarded annually and in perpetuity to an electrical engineering graduate student at USC Viterbi who comes from China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

He was also awarded posthumously his MS degree, which Yortsos presented to his parents on Aug. 1.

A memorial service for Xinran Ji will take place at 3 p.m., Friday, Aug. 1 at Newman Hall.






纪欣然身边一位昔日在浙江大学时认识的好朋友孔家明(Jiaming Kong音译)说:“这是纪欣然在面对困难时所用的方法。”


孔家明(Jiaming Kong音译)说:“他总是努力不懈地把很多零部件拼拼凑凑,使他们鲜活起来。”

这正是孔家明(Jiaming Kong音译)对纪欣然的最后一个记忆,他见证这一位年轻的明日工程界之星对工作的热诚以及对零部件的坚持。






纪欣然于维特比工程学院电气工程专业认识的另一位毕业于电气工程专业的好朋友陈丹蕾(Danlei Chen音译)透露,纪欣然全心全意相信西奥多.冯.卡门的一句名言“科学家发现世界;工程师创造世界”。


时所见到的自动化生产线和先进的FANUC机器人。孔家明(Jiaming Kong音译)补充说:“纪欣然作分享时,他的眼睛闪耀,彷佛他还在惊叹于这些东西。”


纪欣然也是南加州大学 (USC)维特比工程师的模范。引用Yannis C. Yortsos院长的一句话:“结合数学、分析、创意和综合能力,展现左右脑能力的平衡融合。”


一名南加州大学(USC)维特比工程学院电气工程研究生詹方悦(Fangyue Zhan音译)说:“摄影不单只是兴趣,也是帮助别人的一种方法。我记得当时是下午三点,我请他帮忙替我拍一张护照相片,他马上答应了。经过简单准备及调节(摄影)角度,他替我拍了很多张让我自己挑选。接着他为我编辑相片,效果比专业的都好。”




纪欣然在EE 577A: VSLI 系统设计的导师Shahin Nazarian说:“他是我班上最好的学生之一。在课堂上我曾留给他们一个十分具有挑战性的作业,让他们去设计一个通用微处理器,当中涉及软件和硬件部分的设计。他的组员跟我说他负责主导整个设计,因为他想要达到完美。他自己负责设计难度最高的分频器,最终他们从60至70组中拿到前4位。”

据一位2013年秋季讲师、现职于英特尔的Ehsan Pakbaznia所述:“他在我课上的整体表现真的很好,作为一位在相关行业工作的人,我把他看成一位顶级设计师。”

陈丹蕾(Danlei Chen音译)表示:“他是一个注重精准及细节的完美主义者。每一次收拾书包时,他会把电线整理后放在一个小包,然后把计算机先放进计算机包后才安放在背包内。他画的简图线条清晰有序,修改代码的注解简单明了。”


陈丹蕾(Danlei Chen音译)说:“对他来说,买车的目的只是帮助别人。当他买了一辆车时,他便发短信告知朋友他愿意随时载他们一程。从那时候开始,他便经常接载室友到唐人街或接送朋友去机场。”


紀欣然的追悼会于8月1日(周五)下午3时在Newman Hall举行。

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