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Professor Maryam Fazel becomes first recipient of the Moorthy Family Inspiration Career Development Professorship

August 12, 2020

Story by Wayne Gillam | UW ECE News

Maryam Fazel writing equations on a glass wall

UW ECE Professor and Associate Chair for Research Maryam Fazel was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Moorthy Family Inspiration Career Development Professorship. Fazel’s research interests are in mathematical optimization, machine learning, data science and control theory. In addition to co-directing the Algorithmic Foundations of Data Science Institute, she holds adjunct appointments in the mathematics and statistics departments at the UW, as well as the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Photo by Patrick Bennett.

Maryam Fazel has built a solid reputation throughout her career for dissolving barriers between electrical engineering, computer science, statistics and math. She is known for the high caliber of her research work and for finding innovative ways to apply mathematical methods from one field to solve problems in another.

“So often, you find people in different areas of engineering and the sciences who are working on the same foundational mathematical problems but using different terminology and techniques,” Fazel said. “Making connections through shared mathematical formulations and building bridges between disparate areas has been a strong theme in my research.”

As a professor and Associate Chair for Research in the University of Washington Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE), Fazel has earned the respect and admiration of her peers. Her current research focuses on addressing pressing computational and statistical challenges in data science algorithms.

“Professor Fazel is one of the world’s experts on the theory of mathematical optimization and its applications to machine learning, signal processing and control systems,” said UW ECE Professor and Chair Eric Klavins. “She is a dedicated teacher, advisor, mentor and leader. In her role as the Associate Chair for Research in our department, her guidance and collegiality is indispensable.”

In recognition of her outstanding, innovative work as a researcher and educator, Fazel was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Moorthy Family Inspiration Career Development Professorship. This generous endowment was established in 2019 by Ganesh and Hema Moorthy for the purposes of recruiting, rewarding and retaining UW ECE faculty members who have demonstrated a significant amount of promise early on in their careers.

“I am grateful to the Moorthy family for their vision and generosity in establishing this professorship. I feel truly honored to be chosen as the first recipient,” Fazel said. “I am especially excited that my group’s current research focus on foundations of data science and machine learning will directly benefit from this support.”

For the past several years, Fazel has focused on producing algorithms capable of reaching accurate conclusions despite limited or corrupted data. For example, her work on the problem of estimating low-rank matrices or “matrix completion” connected an approach from the field of signal processing to solving mathematical problems in recommender systems and dynamical system identification. These research findings significantly impacted the fields of machine learning and control systems, and the paper has been cited by other scholarly publications over 3,000 times.

In another project, Fazel’s team observed that recent technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence were enabled by machine-learning methods that were commonly used but not well understood. Her team has been filling this knowledge gap by combining the viewpoints of machine learning and control theory (examining the behavior of dynamical systems) to better understand these methods and be able to improve them in a principled manner. Through this new understanding, they are finding ways to make machine-learning methods more robust and resilient in uncertain, ever-changing environments.

In addition to her UW ECE roles, Fazel is co-director of the Algorithmic Foundations of Data Science Institute (ADSI), which is supported by the National Science Foundation. ADSI focuses on developing theoretical and algorithmic tools that bridge mathematics, computer science and statistics for addressing contemporary data science challenges.

Fazel also has plans for using the professorship award to assist the UW ECE department, including improving remote-work setups, hosting visiting research collaborators, helping to sponsor special lectures and tutorials, and filling-in funding gaps for graduate students engaged in research.

“As the UW ECE Associate Chair for Research, I appreciate that this gift will impact the scholarship and innovation of its faculty recipient for many years to come. It’s a gift to the future of our whole department,” Fazel said.

The Moorthy family in front of the Taj Mahal, India

Ganesh and Hema Moorthy in India, December 2018, with their twin sons Mohan and Ashwin, daughter Anjali and son-in-law Jonathan

Like Fazel, the Moorthy family is focused on the future and preparing the next generation of engineers. The family has always placed a high value on education and believes in what it can do for an individual and society. Ganesh Moorthy earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the UW in 1981. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Bombay in India and an MBA in marketing from the National University in Sacramento. He has served on the UW ECE advisory board and was guest speaker at the 2019 UW ECE graduation ceremony. Moorthy currently serves as the President and Chief Operating Officer of Microchip Technology, one of the world’s leading providers of semiconductor solutions that enable smart, connected and secure devices. His wife, Hema, was also trained as an electrical engineer, worked at Hewlett-Packard for a number of years and started a Kumon math and reading center in 2010. She holds an MBA from California State University in Sacramento.

“Hema and I are very happy to learn that Maryam Fazel will be the inaugural recipient of the professorship,” Moorthy said. “Her fields of interest in data science and machine learning are exciting areas of contemporary innovation, and we are very pleased that our endowment may support further advances in her areas of focus.”

The Moorthy Family Inspiration Career Development Professorship recognizes the encouragement and support that Ganesh and Hema Moorthy found in their parents, their family members and many others, as well as the same inspiration they continually strive to offer their own children. This multi-generational professorship in perpetuity reflects the spirit of their generous endowment.

“As UW ECE Chair, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Moorthy family for supporting this professorship,” Klavins said. “This funding and the flexibility that comes with it will allow Professor Fazel to amplify her efforts in many ways, increasing the impact of her research and the stature of our department. I am overjoyed that her excellence is being recognized by this award.”

To learn more about the Moorthy Family Inspiration Career Development Professorship, see UW ECE’s newsletter, The Integrator (2019 issue, pages 42–45). A professorship investiture event for Professor Fazel is tentatively scheduled for Fall 2021.