31 Dec 2019
by Mark

Year in Review: 2019

Summary: A copy of my end of year message to my lab, where I review the key events from 2019.

As I detail further below, this past year was both incredibly satisfying as well as bittersweet in a number of ways. The work you have all done this year has made this year one of my most memorable and restorative. I truly count myself so fortunate to work every day with such a hard-working, creative group of people who continually push me and each other to perform at our best. This year was different than last year in the sense that we were able to harvest many of the great efforts you all have spent years building up to. Likewise, this has led to many new seed ideas and endeavours that I am excited to grow and explore in the years ahead!

The People

Working with all of you is the best part of my job, hands down, and this year we had several important departures from the lab that make this year surprisingly bittersweet to me. Specifically, in August of this year, three of our lab members moved onwards to new stages in their careers.

First, Dr. Zois Boukovalas, a post-doc in the lab who many of you interacted with, accepted an offer as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at American University (AU). Zois was one of the first post-docs I hired, alongside Dr. Dan Elton, and so to see Zois secure his top choice institution while remaining nearby enough to continue our collaborations, is a win-win for both of us! Second, in early August (now Dr.) Wei Chen defended his dissertation entitled “Data-Driven Geometric Design Space Exploration and Design Synthesis” and walked in the December 2019 graduation ceremony. After defending in August, Wei started as a Research Scientist at Seimens Corporate Technology within the Generative Design group. I am looking forward to continuing to collaborate with Wei and his colleagues at Seimens as the years move forward. Third, a few weeks after Wei in August, (now Dr.) Faez Ahmed defended his dissertation entitled “Diversity and Novelty: Measurement, Learning and Optimization” and walked in the December 2019 graduation ceremony. Faez has accepted a job as an Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) starting in Fall 2020, and will be taking a year to broaden his research horizons by taking a post-doc with Dr. Wei Chen at Northwestern University.

Faez Ahmed, Wei Chen, and Mark Fuge at UMD December 2019 Graduation.

Having both Wei and Faez leave this fall has been particularly bittersweet for me because they were the first PhD students who I recruited and hired into the department. They effectively helped me launch the lab into the state it is in today, and many of you reading this have interacted with them in some capacity. Many, if not all, of the grants we have received in the past few years have been directly built upon the foundation of papers and research Wei and Faez did during their time here. I will always be grateful for what their hard work has done for my own career and the rest of the lab. I look foward to being their friend and colleague in the years ahead!

In terms of additions, this year our lab welcomed two excellent Post-Docs, Dr. Xiaolong Liu and Dr. Fatemeh Ghoreishi, both of whom are exploring different aspects of medical robotics design and optimization for Aortic Grafts and Soft Catheters, respectively. I am excited to explore with them all the interesting ways design and ML can help advance the medical device field! Glancing into 2020 a little bit, we’ll be welcoming Sangeeth Balakrishnan as a new Ph.D. student in the Spring who I am co-advising with Peter Chung on the intersection of Geometric Deep Learning and Materials Design.

The Science

Once again this year, your scientific efforts have led to our lab’s most productive year to-date, by almost every measure I can think of. Beyond simple metrics, however, what really impressed me about your work this year was the breadth of contributions across a number of scientific areas that I think speaks to how well each of you is able to connect our common expertise to a set of diverse applications. Just to highlight a few (non-exhaustive) examples of what I mean by this, we saw:

And there were many other exciting papers you all worked on that I could have mentioned here, though my point is just to highlight how enriching it is to my own personal satisfication and intellectual curiousity that we can apply our work in design, machine learning, and applied mathematics to such a range of venues and problems. You are the reason my job continues to be so interesting!

The Field

This year continued to be a banner year in terms of academic, government, and industry interest in the intersection of Machine Learning and Mechanical Design/Optimization. As just one example, this year the Journal of Mechanical Design, ASME’s flagship design journal, had its Special Issue on “Machine Learning in Engineering Design.” I co-guest edited this SI with the wonderful Jitesh Panchal, Ying Liu, Sammy Missoum, and Conrad Tucker and all of them did a simply tremendous job given the enormous number of high quality submissions there were on this topic. If I recall correctly, the SI even spanned two volumes in the journal! It was really exciting to see such interesting work and a large investment by the academic community in this area. For a summary of the SI, you can check out the short editorial that we put together.

Also this year, ARPA-E’s DIFFERENTIATE Program launched, which is a $30M funding program focusing on new AI/ML tools that can improve energy product design to enable things like all-electric aircraft, new photovoltaics, efficient power grid convertors, and so forth to help address growing energy and climate concerns. You can read more about it from ARPA-E’s press release. I remember in 2018 presenting at the program workshop many of the results that Wei, Faez, Dan, Zois, Charlie, and Nicholas had worked throughout 2017 and 2018, and much of that work ended up supporting UMD’s grant applications to the program. In total, UMD secured around 3 of the 23 awards (13%) and I am excited to see how these new investments can propel our work forward in the years to come. Such a thing would not have been possible were it not for the great effort you all put in!

Alumni News

Occasionally, I’ll get some updates from past lab alumni, and I was fortunate to see Dr. Kailyn Cage on campus several months ago during a trip over from Amazon Lab 126. She’s enjoying her time and work at Amazon and spoke of how well regarded UMD is at places like Amazon and Apple, particularly among those who focus on product relability. She runs into fellow Terps often! Thanks for visiting Kailyn :-)

Thanks everyone again for a great 2019, and I’m looking forward to what we can accomplish together in 2020 and the decade to come!

Also, I’m including some fun pictures below from the Lab Picnic and Kayaking trip over the summer on the Anacostia River:

Lab eating some Ethopian food for lunch.

Charlie, Zois, Maria, and Fatemeh kayaking on the water.

Group photo at the lab picnic.