Esen Yel Recognized for Excellence in Autonomous Systems Research

The University of Virginia’s Link Lab for cyber-physical systems recently joined forces with Leidos, a Link Lab corporate partner since 2017, to create a new career skills-building experience for graduate students. The Link Lab Student Seminar awards Ph.D. students who demonstrate academic excellence the opportunity to present their research in the Link Lab.

The program supports Link Lab’s mission to prepare graduating engineers to hit the ground running in evolving, cyber-physical systems industries, immersing students in interdisciplinary research and providing professional development for career-aligned skills building.

“We really want to support our students and one way is through this type of distinguished seminar. In addition to our audience getting to see a highlight of excellent research that is happening in the Link Lab, the Ph.D. candidate can practice delivering a talk to an audience of peers, faculty and industry partners and receive feedback on their talk,” said John A. Stankovic, BP America Professor of computer science and Link Lab director. “An opportunity like this is particularly important for Ph.D. students who are about to leave the Link Lab and go into the real world.”

The inaugural awardee is Esen Yel, an engineering systems and environment Ph.D. student. She gave her talk at the first Student Link Lab Seminar, held virtually on Dec. 3. Yel was selected in recognition of her work to advance drones and self-driving vehicles, or autonomous systems

Esen Yel

Esen Yel, an engineering systems and environment Ph.D. student, gave her talk at the first Student Link Lab Seminar, held virtually in December. Yel was selected in recognition of her work to advance drones and self-driving vehicles, or autonomous systems.

Yel’s advisor is Nicola Bezzo, Link Lab member and assistant professor with joint appointments in the departments of Engineering Systems and Environment and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“I have had the opportunity to advise students from top engineering schools, including University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Georgia Tech,” said Bezzo. “Esen is one of the top students I have ever advised. She is also one of the best Ph.D. students in my research group.”

Yel has been working with Bezzo and his team of researchers on methods for moving autonomous mobile robots out of the lab and into the real world by continuously improving their ability to safely maneuver in unforeseen or suddenly changing circumstances.

Specifically, Yel uses model-based frameworks and machine learning to develop autonomous systems that can anticipate situations and make better decisions. She also has conducted extensive testing and simulations of her techniques that demonstrate the system’s ability to use the learned behaviors to avoid an unsafe situation.

Yel came to UVA Engineering in 2016 to pursue her Ph.D. with an interest in researching ways that control theory could be applied to solving challenging robotics problems. She was immediately able to join other faculty and graduate students collaborating in the Link Lab on research to develop the most advanced autonomous systems.

Yel credits Link Lab’s immersion approach to education with helping her learn to look at problems from different perspectives.

“Link Lab creates a very collaborative environment as it physically gathers people from different backgrounds in the same space,” Yel said. “Thanks to the seminars and talks that happen in the Link Lab, and even day-to-day conversations with other researchers in the lab, I have gained critical insights about different problems and technologies.”

“We are frequently reminded of the importance of the research being done in the Link Lab and the applications it has in the real world,” said John Paul Scaduto, engineering lead at Leidos, during his opening remarks at Yel’s virtual seminar. “Autonomous systems research as important as this continues to drive our commitment and excite us for what’s to come next in our partnership with the Link Lab, a center of cyber-physical system expertise.”

“The collaboration and relationship that we continue to build between industry and academia is vital for making innovation and technology, building the future workforce, and building a better world,” he said. “This student seminar recognizes the hard work, determination and talent demonstrated by the students in the Link Lab achieving excellence in research.”

Yel was also presented with a certificate for excellence in research and a stipend.