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Two UW ECE faculty members receive highly regarded ONR YIP award

April 14, 2020

Story by Wayne Gillam | UW ECE News

headshots of Arka Majumdar and Lillian Ratliff

UW ECE faculty members Arka Majumdar (left) and Lillian Ratliff (right) are each a recipient of the 2020 Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program (ONR YIP) award. The early-career program award supports naval-relevant research and is highly competitive.

University of Washington Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE) faculty members Arka Majumdar and Lillian Ratliff each recently received a prestigious award that will help further their research.

Majumdar and Ratliff are two of only twenty-six award recipients nationwide to receive the 2020 Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program (ONR YIP) award. The early-career award program, established in 1985, supports naval-relevant research and is highly competitive. Majumdar and Ratliff were chosen from more than 275 applicants—all of whom are college and university faculty and obtained a Ph.D. within the past seven years. Academic accomplishments and potential for scientific breakthroughs were considered key factors in the evaluation process.

“This award is a great recognition of the research we are doing,” Majumdar said.

Majumdar, an assistant professor in UW ECE’s Photonics and Nano Devices, and the UW Department of Physics, as well as a faculty member at the Institute for Nano-Engineered Systems, has research interests that align well with the ONR Electromagnetic Materials program. This program develops advanced materials critical to the enhancement of electronic and photonic devices for naval applications, such as imaging and real-time information processing. A current emphasis of the program is on phase-change materials, which can be switched rapidly and repeatedly between two states, allowing light to pass through the material at different speeds. The award will help Majumdar create a scalable, reconfigurable silicon photonics platform integrated with these phase-change materials. Majumdar is especially aiming to create an optical equivalent of an electronic field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is a device that can be reconfigured at will to achieve any desired functionality. Such universally reconfigurable devices could prove useful for a wide range of optoelectronics applications, including bringing optical interconnects to data centers, enabling higher-performance computing than what is currently possible.

Ratliff, an assistant professor in UW ECE Data Science, as well as Robotics and Controls, has research interests that coincide with the ONR Science of Autonomy program, which explores interconnections between fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, economics and behavioral psychology. The award will help Ratliff develop mathematical theory and algorithms involved in decision-making processes of artificially intelligent systems, a central aspect of which is understanding behaviors such as cooperation, competition or collusion. These behaviors emerge when artificially intelligent systems or the algorithms that support them interact with each other. Ratliff’s research could prove extremely useful for the design of autonomous systems with which humans interact, such as intelligent infrastructure or online marketplaces, which now support everything from e-commerce to labor procurement. Moreover, the research has the potential to shape government policy in regard to such systems.

“I am very honored to have the research we are doing in my group receive recognition via this award,” Ratliff said. “The award will help support our continued efforts in conducting fundamental research and in advancing the science of autonomy.”

Majumdar and Ratliff will each receive $510,000, distributed over a 36-month period. The award will support laboratory equipment, graduate student stipends and scholarships, as well as other expenses critical to ongoing and planned research.

To learn more about the ONR YIP, visit the ONR website.