Two Electrical Engineering Ph.D. Students Earn Inaugural Fellowship Award

The late Malathi Veeraraghavan was a firm believer in graduate education and research, serving as professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering. The Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering established a merit-based, donor-funded fellowship program to support this mission and honor her legacy.

The 2021 awardees are Tianhui Zhu, a Ph.D. student of electrical engineering advised by Mona Zebarjadi, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and materials science and engineering; and Ahmed Khalid, who will begin his electrical engineering Ph.D. program in January 2022, advised by Nikolaos Sidiropoulos, Louis T. Rader Professor and department chair.

Zhu’s ambition is to follow Veeraraghavan’s path into academe. Like Veeraraghavan, Zhu’s experience has strengthened her commitment to inclusiveness in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“In pursuit of higher education, I left my home in China to study in the United Kingdom and then the United States,” Zhu said. “During these years, I met people from many parts of the world, of different races, ethnicities or gender identities, and religious beliefs. These interactions humbled me and broadened my perspective.”

Zhu and Zebarjadi connected at Rutgers University, where Zhu started her doctoral studies program and Zebarjadi was a professor of mechanical engineering. When Zebarjadi joined the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering in the fall of 2016, she invited Zhu to join her research group. They share a background in physics and a desire to make devices that work in industry.

Zhu is the most senior student working at Zebarjadi’s energy science nanotechnology and imagination lab, a research hub for electrical, mechanical, and materials science and engineering that advances thermal management in microelectronic devices, which means controlling the heat the devices generate. Zhu focuses on 2D materials, a class of nanomaterials merely a few atoms thick.

“Tianhui is very good in understanding fundamental physics and meticulous in her approach to planning and conducting experiments,” Zebarjadi said.

Zhu studies how heat and electricity propagate through 2D materials. She has developed a technique to measure in-plane heat conduction inside thin films supported by a substrate. She studies the effect of heat leakage and patterned defects on thermal transport to inspire the design of new metamaterials that can control and manipulate heat. In the process of conducting her experiments, Zhu has found clever ways to control physical variables such as equipment vibration and glass encasements to accurately measure the temperatures of materials under study at extremely low temperatures.

“Tianhui has worked with all the equipment in my lab, and very patiently helps newer members learn all the steps of materials characterization and device fabrication,” Zebarjadi said. “I depend on her to lead group meetings in my absence and help my students solve problems they encounter with their experiments or their results.”

“Women are underrepresented in STEM fields. As a woman myself, I feel the necessity and share the responsibility to help fellow women students,” Zhu said. “As a mentor, I want to do more than teach basic experimental skills; I share my views on career development, work-life balance and other work-related challenges.”

Zhu participated in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association iREDEFINE workshop, designed to motivate and prepare women and underrepresented minority Ph.D. students to pursue faculty positions in U.S. universities.

“This [workshop] is something I would like to give back when I become a faculty member,” she said. “Sharing my experience and knowledge with the next generation is of great importance and one way that I can foster a safe and inclusive environment in my future classroom and research group.”

Ahmed Khalid also earned the Malathi Veeraraghavan Legacy Fellowship. Khalid brings substantial industry experience to his doctoral studies. He grew up in New York city, earned his bachelor’s degree from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and returned to the United States to join the private sector.

For the past nine years, Khalid has worked at a technology company that specializes in test and measurement. Khalid began his career as an applications engineer and progressed to corporate positions in sales, management and strategy. He is working as a principal systems engineer focused on aerospace and defense applications.

When Khalid assumed a more technical job role in January 2020, he realized that he wanted to get back to his roots—a calling that would have gained Veeraraghavan’s support. Veeraraghavan distinguished herself at Bell Labs and AT&T, then followed her passion to answer fundamental questions through university research. 

“It will be quite a change, from being an established person in industry to being a student,” Khalid sad. “It’s important to keep on doing work that excites you. At this stage of my life, I am more concerned about enjoying the work.”

For Khalid, part of the enjoyment comes from learning and testing out theories. His interests include research in physical layer wireless communications, information theory and multidimensional signal processing. These topics have widespread applications from space communications to radars and advanced automotive technologies.   

“A lot has been done on the practical side of things,” he said. “When we are developing products, the timelines are really fast, and we are not necessarily finding more efficient and effective ways to create a jump in technology.”

Khalid’s company colleagues introduced him to Sidiropoulos, a global leader in signal processing for communications and fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the European Association for Signal Processing.

“Nikos’ research exemplifies mathematical rigor and sound theory, and he instills these qualities in his students,” Khalid said.

"I am truly impressed by Ahmed’s depth, motivation and ‘zen.’ He is a natural leader, and we have the right ingredients to do great things together,” Sidiropoulos said.

Khalid’s strong track record in wireless communications makes him a natural fit for Sidiropoulos’ research group. “Ahmed’s RF expertise, particularly in software defined radio synchronization, field-programmable gate array programming, and radar will be a valuable addition to my group and our department,” Sidiropoulos said.

Khalid looks forward to revisiting the theoretical assumptions guiding multidimensional signal processing and information theory, which he intends to explore in his course work and research. He will work on a technique to share frequency bands called seamless spectrum underlay, funded by the National Science Foundation.

“There was a lot of interest in physical layer communication and information theory a decade ago, but the field became saturated,” Khalid said. “Since technology is evolving due to AI and connected devices, the situation today is that we have a lot of little tools that don’t scale. Foundational work helps to advance technology by leaps and bounds and also helps to answer questions that are more universal.”

Zongli Lin, Ferman W. Perry Professor of electrical and computer engineering and the department’s associate chair for graduate studies, oversaw the application and award process for the inaugural fellowships.

“Tianhui and Ahmed are exceptionally talented and dedicated to advancing the state-of-the-art in electrical engineering,” Lin said. “In them, I recognize many of the traits for which we most fondly remember Malathi: her work ethic, her incredible and constructive spirit and her ability to connect ideas to problems in unexpected ways. The Fellowship is one of many ways we honor her legacy, by supporting our mutual success and working together to build a more sustainable and connected world.”