P. R. Kumar
July 1, 2009
Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: Currently I’m working on three issues and all of them go from one into the other. They are wireless networks, sensor networks, and network embedded control systems. More broadly, I work in the area of control communications, what is called the systems side of electrical engineering, and I’m dabbling a little bit on the computer science side.
Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I did my bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the India Institute of Technology in Madras in 1973. I then did my master’s and D.Sc. at Washington University in St. Louis in what was called the Department of Systems Science and Mathematics (in 1975 and 1977, respectively). After that I joined the Department of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in the fall of 1977. From there, I got my first tenure from a math department. I joined Illinois in January 1985 and have been here since.
Q: You just said you used to be a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Maryland. Why did you decide to become part of the Department of ECE at the University of Illinois, instead of the Mathematics Department?
A: My bachelor’s degree was in electrical engineering, so this was a natural home for me. I think initially being in a math department was very good for me. It allowed me to develop a personal discipline of rigorous statements and theories and research. But engineering allows me now to formulate a rich set of interesting technological problems, which I can continue to address in all kinds of areas. I think basically this is a large playpen.
Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: It’s interesting. In India when I was growing up, engineering was actually considered an exciting profession. It was in a stage of nation building. Electronics engineering was particularly considered attractive because it flowed into a lot of modern technology.
Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: I’ll tell you two of them because they both share something in common. Both of these are problems, which I spend a heck of a lot of time, maybe six months non-stop just thinking about them trying to solve them without any guarantee that anything would ever happen. Both of them were paper and pencil research. One was in the late ’80s, shortly after I came to Illinois. At that time there was a technique called “simulated annealing” that was attracting a lot of attention. In fact, one of my colleagues, Bruce Hajek, had given a very nice proof of certain convergencies of that. There was also another proof by a professor at MIT called John Tsitsiklis, and I was looking for something very, very simple, an alternative proof, along a certain line, which involved balance across time. And I finally was able to find it, so that was very gratifying.
The second one was in the late ’80s, and I was looking at manufacturing systems. There was a particularly simple scheduling policy called Last Buffer First Served, and I was trying to show that it was stable. It was quite an interesting problem, and I finally came up with a rather complicated, multilayered induction proof by which I was able to show stability. That research actually went on to develop other things. I went on to develop a scheduling policy for semiconductors made for fabrication plants. In fact, the policy that I designed is running IBM’s Burlington Vermont facility. So both of these were problems of which I spent months thinking about them and only them. It was gratifying to get results.
Q: You are the faculty advisor for the Illini Table Tennis Club. How/why did you become affiliated with the group and what does your role entail?
A: I play table tennis. I love table tennis, and I’ve been playing it since I was in high school. We have an Illini Table Tennis Club here, and I’ve been playing with it for a long time. It basically needed some kind of stewardship to go from year to year, so for some time I even served as president of the club. I’m always looking for students to run it, so I can step back, and this year we have excellent students running it. I’ve been playing since I first came here, sometimes less frequently and sometimes more frequently.
At the club right now, I just make sure there is continuity and that when there are issues that come up—such as recently they closed down our facility at Freer Hall, so we had to campaign to make sure that we got good facilities, which we did at CRCE—so I had to make sure that transaction went well. Usually I make sure that the club has a healthy presence and make sure we have a table at Quad Day.
Q: You have been listed on the “Incomplete List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students,” more than 15 times since 1991. Why do you feel this recognition is so important?
A: I very much like the title of this award. It really shows that it’s just one dimension. It really is an incomplete list. I think this is as close to immediate and direct feedback at the end of the semester that professors get, and it at least shows there’s something you’re doing right. Of course, there could be a whole lot of other stuff not mentioned that you’re doing wrong. But at least on certain things, you get some positive feedback. I think it’s some kind of feedback from students, which we appreciate always.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: Trying to make things simple. Ultimately everything is, so my goal is always to simplify, to show what is deep in a simple way, to make students really understand at the bottom of their hearts what is going on in such a way that they feel confident about it. My goal is to leave students with the knowledge that the subject is easy, not hard. The goal is to leave students with a social understanding that they can use it all the time. I think too often we don’t do that. A lot of professors leave students with the feeling that the course is difficult, and the students are glad to have finished it and never want to see it again. My goal is the opposite. It’s to make them feel that the subject is simple, that they remember it their whole lives and that they use it with pleasure and confidence.
Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: My graduate students play a critical part in my research. I’ve always had graduate teaching assistants, even when I was at Maryland. I would feel pressured to guide all the students, but then, over the course of time, you learn how to give them freedom. In Maryland I had 13 students. Now I have 8 or 9. They’re all engaged in different activities. They’re not all doing the same thing, so one of them is working on developing software and other is developing an algorithm for intelligent traffic intersections. They are all working on a diversity of problems, and it’s good to have students to talk to. I think they provide valuable attraction. I treat them more or less like colleagues. With colleagues, it’s fun to discuss things.
Q: Over the years, you have received many awards and recognitions. Which one is most meaningful to you and why?
A: I think the most meaningful is from your own discipline. We have an award called the IEEE Field Award, and my field is control systems. [Kumar received the award in 2006.] Deserved or not, I appreciated it very much because it’s your peers. It’s your own field, as opposed to some external outsiders giving you an award. It’s people in your work and your field choosing you for the award.
Q: What are you focused on today?
A: As I said before, there are three ideas. I’m interested in exploring wireless networks all the way from fundamental information theory to developing algorithms, developing protocols and the software engineering issues. I’m also interested in sensor networks from theory to algorithms. Finally network embedded control systems. It’s a very emerging area. Networks are not going to be used for information transfer, but actually to control our environment. For example, we will soon have our automobiles wireless, so our cars will be talking to each other. There will be intelligent highways and intersections, so those are the things that our research may do.
Q: What does the future hold?
A: I think the 21st Century is the age of building large systems. Over the past decades, because of advances in electronics, electromagnetics and so on, we actually have the technology to build all kinds of smart systems. Now we are entering an area where we are going to have to be very frugal with our research. We are going to have to be much more efficient in what we do, so the 21st Century is going to be the age of building smart systems, whether it is highways or intelligent health care systems. Whatever it is, we’re going to have to use technology to solve environmental resource conduction human type of problems. And that’s a very exciting agenda. From a researcher’s point of view, there are problems from theory to implementation, so it’s very exciting to be a researcher in this area. . . . I have students working on different algorithms and problems. If we can put all these things together, then that vision that I spoke of earlier will hopefully contribute to bigger things.
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