Fang Wins Best Dissertation Award
Newest ISR Faculty Member Wins USC Viterbi Best Dissertation Award
By Adam Smith (USC)
Last June, Fei Fang took her first ride on the Staten Island Ferry.
She was one of about 66,000 passengers that day, boarding one of the five, orange ferries going from Manhattan to Staten Island. Nearby, in the waters of Upper New York Bay, she could see two small patrol ships with M240 Bravo machine guns.
What Fang knew – that the other 66,000 passengers didn’t know – was that it was her algorithm, guiding where those patrol ships would go, that was key to keeping them all safe.
Today, after five years of Ph.D. research, Fang was awarded the best USC Viterbi dissertation award for 2017 – the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research.
At the 2017 USC Viterbi Ph.D. Hooding and Awards Ceremony, Dean Yannis C. Yortsos congratulated Fang and scores of newly hooded Ph.D.s. The May 11 event at USC’s Bovard Auditorium was the culmination of a half-decade or more of immersive research in topics ranging from tsunamis, socially assistive robots and biological imaging.
As Yortsos noted: “You will join a very select few: According to the most recent U.S. census data, just over 1 percent of the U.S. population holds a Ph.D. One of them, by the way, is a fellow by the name of Andrew Viterbi, who 50 years ago created the Viterbi Algorithm – the “killer app” behind digital communications, voice recognition and DNA sequencing among others.”
For Fang, who worked alongside Professor Milind Tambe in USC Viterbi’s Teamcore Lab, she feels fortunate to see her research having real world impact in security and sustainability: aiding the U.S. Coast Guard and even protecting endangered tigers in Malaysia.
In a world with limited security resources – whether it’s Coast Guard ships, U.S. air marshals, police or park rangers fighting poachers – Fang explored how best to deploy them. In the case of the Staten Island Ferry, the two Coast Guard patrol ships – vigilant of a U.S.S. Cole style attack – cannot be everywhere at once, and additional vessels cost upwards of $1 million. Unlike, say LAX, where Tambe’s lab also schedules security patrols, the Coast Guard is protecting five moving targets across one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Nevertheless, the Coast Guard has been impressed. Said Fang, “Professional mariners said that there is an apparent increase in U.S. Coast Guard patrols – even though they have the same number as before.”
For Fang, who begins a new life this fall as an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, she felt a surge of pride that day aboard the ferry: “When the patrol boats did a sudden U-Turn, deep in my heart, I knew it was my algorithm at work.”