Ashe Has Earned a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering

Activities at UVA: Lighting of the Lawn, First Year Players, Spectrum Theater, University Singers, Rodman Scholars

Q: Looking back to the time when you applied to UVA Engineering, why did you choose this school? 

A:  I originally chose UVA as it offered a diverse set of options for academic and extracurricular work. I was already familiar with the school – my older brother Jay is also an alum of the Engineering School (Bachelor of Science in computer engineering, class of 2015), and a lot of my friends from Northern Virginia came here too. I originally chose UVA as an undergraduate, so I’m finishing up as a Double Hoo, with my undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering and Music.

I decided to pursue a graduate degree here due to an ideal research opportunity that came up at the end of my fourth year. I was taking a class with professor Ron Williams, who was looking for a research student to join him on an application of real-time operating systems. One of the TAs, a friend of mine from other classes, recommended that I talk to Professor Williams due to my interest in embedded systems and related capstone work. I had come to enjoy embedded development after my first hands-on experience as a freshman in high school, but it was professor Todd DeLong’s class that opened my eyes to the range of possibilities and the potential for a career.

During my first meeting with professor Williams, I learned the project was not just about the technical side of real-time operating systems, but also building custom sensors using embedded systems for a medical project. I was accepted into UVA as a prospective biomedical engineer and had a little bit of experience working on medical technologies for some research in high school. I had also worked for two years in the fabrication lab at the School of Architecture. I knew how to 3D print something, how to use computer-aided design software. I had all these sets of skills that were perfect for the project, and the project offered a way to use those skills to help others through medical research.

That summer research experience quickly turned into a decision to stay for a master’s degree with professor Williams as my advisor, which evolved into dissertation research and my Ph.D. degree. The project kept moving forward. We were working with real human subjects, getting sensor data to measure motion signals of breathing and making really cool conclusions. I kept getting to ask big questions and finding people to help me learn more. It was a serendipitous and continual process of doors opening in just the right way.

After your time here, how are you different now – how have you grown as a person?

Eight years ago, I was moving away from biomedical engineering but lacked a clear plan forward. I thought the best thing I could do was to become a consultant, work for a few years, and figure it out from there. But I realized by the end of my second year that I had bigger questions about how engineering relates to society. I was meeting all these great people in my classes who were learning the same things about engineering I was, with totally different ideas of how to apply it and take it into the world.

UVA engineers think big. It’s a big world out there. We’re engineers, and that tends to be the lens we use to view the world. But there’s architecture students, music students, commerce students, philosophy and English students, all these different threads going on here at such a big research university. I couldn’t ignore that. I wanted to use my skills in a way to do something good,in a way that was personally meaningful, even if it didn’t fit into a single discipline.

In graduate school, I got comfortable with not knowing the answer, not knowing what I was going to say to my professor the next week, having to come up with my own answer and work through it. That was where it all came together, the personal growth of me figuring how to answer the questions I wanted to answer, with the collaboration and context you get from working at a globally minded university.

What was your favorite or most memorable educational experience at UVA Engineering, and why? Was there someone who helped you along your journey?

I routinely remember collaborators across the board who have shaped my thinking, like my capstone group. John Walnut, Andrew Coffee, and I built the avionics for a satellite project that was happening in the aerospace department. We worked with 30-some aerospace engineers and we brought on even more electrical and computer engineers to help us out. When we got the message that the satellite had communicated to our ground station from its orbit — that’s one of those moments you can’t take away.

The sensor technology I used on that satellite was the same technology we used in my graduate research, so that was a cool connection for me. One week of development on our analysis of respiratory kinematics research project stands out as distinctly memorable. Professor Williams and I were collaborating in his office, multiple afternoons in a row, spending hours going back and forth about the sensors. Getting to do that with someone who has 40 years’ experience in industry and academia, seeing him after all that experience still get excited about making these sensors work, was so intrinsically encouraging – these little successful moments are the defining memory of my graduate experience.

What’s next for you? 

I plan to stay on as a data analyst, continuing to work on the (analysis of respiratory kinematics) project. We are currently analyzing data from a clinical trial, putting out another paper, and looking forward to more grants and more publishing. 

What positive impact do you hope to make in the future? Is there a big societal challenge you’d like to help solve?

I’m a very interdisciplinary-minded engineer. I love reaching out and finding something new and finding a way to relate it to all the things I know, to recontextualize everything that’s in my own head with this new piece of information.

The first place I heard it crystalized into a clean idea was in professor Dana Elzey’s Rodman Scholars introduction class. He spent a lot of the time pushing us to think bigger and at the same time with more granularity. His point was that when you dig into the connections between fields, you can often find really creative solutions for these bigger problems. I want to bring this mentality to other engineers.

(The analysis of respiratory kinematics project) is a perfect example. I got the chance to do complete custom sensor design for a medical device. Then we built the second prototype, where I built a customized android app to talk to a commercial sensor that was deployed to an emergency room and hospital wards to collect real patient data. We’re processing the data now and finding statistical significance – with metrics derived exclusively from our data, we are finding ways to characterize patients as healthy or at risk. To do this effectively, we need experts in engineering, medicine and statistical verification along with teams of research coordinators. You can gain so much power by finding that space in the middle and I want to bring that to as many people as possible.

How has UVA Engineering prepared you for your future, for following your dreams or personal mission?

For me, it was getting a solid foundation in engineering as an undergrad in UVA Engineering, followed by this solid research experience in a world-class medical center working on a very topical project.

UVA Engineering recognized there was only so much they could do for me in the classroom, if I wasn’t getting these real-world experiences. I worked in the architecture school, took classes in music, studied abroad. I collaborated across four schools including the college, in nine or 10 departments, and UVA Engineering has been here every step of the way, opening doors.

As an example, I took a class in the music department, an audio signal processing class taught by professor Luke Dahl. In addition to his appointment in the Department of Music, professor Dahl has a courtesy appointment in electrical and computer engineering and worked as a digital systems engineer before pursuing his research in computer music technologies. Professor Joanne Dugan helped me apply his class toward my engineering curriculum requirements, which directly enabled me to earn both degrees. In grad school, I did an independent study with the same professor, building an electronic musical instrument, coming up with all the circuitry, coding it and building it physically back in the School of Architecture with the help of friends in the fabrication lab. These studies have complemented a more traditional set of classes covering embedded systems, signal processing, data science and algorithms.

UVA Engineering did everything in its ability to make sure I had my base engineering knowledge down, so when I went into all these other situations, I would be ready to bring my engineering skills to them and bring their skills back to my engineering work. Allowing me to make all these connections and incorporating that into my personal curriculum helped me find my way to research and made my college experience.

What advice would you give to engineering students just starting out?

Take care of your health and build a future simultaneously by engaging with others beyond classwork. For undergrads, I would say join a club and get involved in a research project with a professor who is doing really interesting research or who you think is a really great professor, where you’re drawn to what they think and what they say. 

For both undergrads and graduate students, I would pitch office hours as the ideal way to solve a lot of issues. As a TA for seven semesters, I am very aware of how much people use office hours and how much more successful are the students who regularly use office hours compared to students who just try to push through on their own. The professor knowing who you are, by going to office hours even if an assignment isn’t due, helps you get the help you need. You can also get advice about jobs, or a research lab spot. Go out, get involved, bring your engineering education out of the classroom. UVA provides almost all the opportunities you can think of. And if not, there are ways to make new opportunities for yourself. All that starts the moment you take engineering beyond the classroom door.

Class of 2022: Will Ashe

Will Ashe has earned a Ph.D. in computer engineering.