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ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING’S YOUNG SUPERSTARS

On the last day of September, 30 of the most promising young scientists in the
nation came to the White House Rose Garden to meet President Clinton and Vice
President Gore and accept five- year, $500,000 Presidential Faculty Fellow
grants.

The select company included only two Southern Californians. One of them was
assistant professor Chung-Chieh (Jay) Kuo of the electrical engineering/systems
department of the School of Engineering.

“I feel very confident in my work,” said Kuo. “But this was only the second year
this award has been given and, really, all the candidates were exceptional. I
feel very fortunate.”

Kuo has been at USC since January 1989. After studying electrical engineering in
his native Taiwan and at MIT, he took his first job with the mathematics
department at UCLA. “I had always planned to go back to EE,” he said, “but the
opportunity came unexpectedly.”

Kuo was invited by professor of electrical engineering/systems Alexander Sawchuk
to give a talk at USC.

“I told him, ‘I’m not looking for a job,’ and he told me, ‘just come.’ So I gave
a talk, and they made me an offer.”

Kuo got his appointment at UCLA (and, to a large extent, his Presidential Faculty
Fellow grant) on the basis of his earlier work in applied mathematics. He had
devised methods to use the power of parallel computer architectures —
“connection machines” that harness together hundreds of chips — to solve partial
differential equations.

His work at USC is more concrete. Collaborating with a large number of graduate
students, Kuo is working to find ways to make electronic data-encoding images and
sounds more usable by the next generation of multimedia systems.

One major goal is to compress data to make it more manageable. A one-second,
high-fidelity sound and video recording contains more than 40 megabytes of
information — that is, the entire hard-disk capacity of many desktop PCs. Kuo
hopes to find a way to squeeze this data into a record 100 times as small — a
400-KB file.

He and his graduate students are pursuing a number of avenues to achieve this
end. Many are aimed, in effect, at making smart cameras — computer systems that
can do what the human eye and brain do in finding object edges and textures in
the raw data and using them to structure recognizable images.

Deeper understandings of the structure of recorded images can also be used to
synthesize video data to make real-looking artificial images. This technology is
already being used to produce striking motion-picture special effects like those
seen in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.

“These techniques are very slow,” Kuo said. “The results are very good, but they
take a very long time to achieve, and they depend on a great deal of human
intervention. We hope to make this much faster and more automatic.”

USC is a good place to carry on this work, Kuo said. The students are excellent
“and the department is flexible and dynamic. I feel I can do what I want here
without constraint. I feel the school is encouraging me.”

Kuo recently received an invitation to travel to China to discuss some of this
work. He regretfully declined: the mid- October date conflicted with his
honeymoon with his bride, Terri Peng, a UCLA master’s candidate in architecture.

“My first thought was embarrassment,” recollected Alan E. Willner. “The world is
full of bright people, and I was lucky. They have picked me.”

In September, Willner, an assistant professor of electrical engineering/systems,
learned that he had won a David and Lucille Packard Fellowship. These awards are
given to promising young scientists early in their careers. In addition to
considerable prestige (only three were given last year in the field of
engineering, they come with a $500,000 cash prize.

It was not the first national honor Willner has won in his two years at USC. Six
months after coming here from AT&T’s Bell Labs and Bellcore, he received a
National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award. It was at the time, he
thought, another indication that “this place is right for me.

“Ever since I arrived, people in my department and the administration in general
have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and accepted,” Willner
said.

The sense of belonging was evident from the very beginning, when Willner met
then-department chairman Jerry M. Mendel for the first time. Mendel saw that
Willner was wearing a yarmulke, and he immediately made a call to change the
dinner reservations to a kosher restaurant.

“You would think that this would be an obvious thing to do. But I interviewed in
many other places, and nothing like this happened anywhere else,” Willner said.

When Willner arrived, he didn’t even have to “fight for space.” Colleagues
volunteered to give up square footage in the new EEB building to make room for
his laboratory. “As far as I am concerned, the people and the environment here
are very special.”

His colleague, electical engineering/systems professor Alexander Sawchuk returns
the compliment. “I can’t think of anyone better qualified to have received the
Packard,” he said. “Alan is very hard-working, very diligent. He’s a great role
model for his students. More than that, even though he’s been here only a short
time, he’s participated in many group activities. And people enjoy working with
him.”

Willner works in photonics, an emerging technology that may yield systems using
light (photons) to perform communication tasks now done electronically. His
current major research effort is directed at developing a system that would allow
as many as 20 different frequencies (colors) of light to carry information
simultaneously down the same fiber-optic cable.

The challenge is to build devices that respond selectively to one color. In five
years time, he hopes to have actually built a system that can do the trick. The
Packard grant will help, he said.

“I was obviously very happy, especially for my students. The money will mean that
they will be able to get whatever equipment they need to do world-class research.
I can now concentrate on working with them to build a strong optical
communciations program,” Willner said.

The timing of the award was particularly gratifying to Willner. His parents, who
live near Baltimore, happened to be visiting him when the fellowship was
announced. “It meant a great deal to be able to share this with them,” he said.

Willner lives in the Pico-Robertson area with his wife, Michelle, who is
finishing a Ph.D. in music composition at Columbia University.

[Photo:]Jay Kuo

[Photo:] Alan E. Willner

ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING’S YOUNG SUPERSTARS

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