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Professor Lillian Ratliff receives Dhanani Endowed Faculty Fellowship

December 22, 2020

UW ECE assistant professor Lillian Ratliff

Story by Wayne Gillam | UW ECE News

Lillian Ratliff, an assistant professor in Data Science and Robotics and Controls at the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE), is a prolific researcher who is considered to be a rising star. She is well known for her work in machine learning, mathematical optimization and game theory (the mathematical study of decision-making, conflict and strategy), and her research has wide applications to autonomous systems with which people interact, such as online marketplaces. She is also known for being highly collaborative, having co-authored papers with several UW faculty and researchers across the country, and she has made strong contributions to teaching, service and leadership within UW ECE.

In recognition of her outstanding work, Ratliff was recently awarded a Dhanani Endowed Faculty Fellowship from UW ECE, which will provide substantial support for her research and give her greater flexibility in recruiting and retaining graduate students.

“Professor Ratliff is a leading creative force at the intersection of machine learning and game theory, engaged in building the foundations of widely-used algorithms and methods,” said Eric Klavins, UW ECE professor and department chair. “Her work is incredibly timely, explaining why our increasingly automated, algorithmically-controlled world actually works, when it doesn’t, and how we can improve it.”

“Contributions such as Sal and Amynah Dhanani’s are invaluable to the pursuit of fundamental research that seeks to have high societal impact.” — Lillian Ratliff

The Afroze and Sherali Dhanani Endowed Faculty Fellowship was established by Sal and Amynah Dhanani, who met at the UW as undergraduates. Sal Dhanani graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1996, and Amynah Dhanani received a bachelor’s degree in international studies with a focus on South Asia. Sal Dhanani is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Telenav, a company that pioneered GPS navigation for mobile phones. The couple established the fellowship in 2018 after he delivered the UW ECE graduation address, and they chose to name the fellowship in honor of his parents.

“Our family has always been inspired by my parents, Afroze and Sherali, as forward-thinking visionaries who saw opportunities for growth in novel areas,” Sal Dhanani said. “In keeping with their vision, we wanted to support groundbreaking work in fresh, new directions that meaningfully benefit mankind. We believe that the fellowship award will enable professor Ratliff to continue her exceptional work to do just that.”

(Right to left) Amynah Dhanani, Sal Dhanani and their two children

The Dhananis said they chose to bestow a faculty fellowship to UW ECE because this is where knowledge and greatness happen — the department’s mission is fulfilled through its faculty, who then pass it on to their students.

“UW ECE has always been on the cutting edge of innovation with an interdisciplinary approach to solve interesting problems, so we decided to structure our fellowship in a way that aligns and advances the department’s agenda,” the couple said in a joint statement. “We were thrilled to learn that professor Ratliff was the recipient of the fellowship because her research has the potential to impact a wide range of hard problems we will face as a society in both the near and long term.”

One of the hard problems Ratliff is working on is to address some of the complexities that occur when algorithms, acting in many cases as a proxy for human decision makers, interact with each other in applications such as online marketplaces or intelligent infrastructure. The fellowship will help support Ratliff’s work in this area, which uses game theory to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. Ratliff seeks to optimize the ability of these algorithms to handle rapid, complex and often critical decisions.

“We were thrilled to learn that professor Ratliff was the recipient of the fellowship because her research has the potential to impact a wide range of hard problems we will face as a society in both the near and long term.” — Sal and Amynah Dhanani

“I am honored to be selected for the Dhanani Fellowship, and I’m grateful for the support and opportunities created by Sal and Amynah Dhanani. This fellowship will support my students and me in producing research in the growing interdisciplinary field at the intersection of game theory and machine learning,” Ratliff said. “As a consequence, it will help to reinforce the UW ECE presence in the broader data science and machine learning community. Contributions such as Sal and Amynah Dhanani’s are invaluable to the pursuit of fundamental research that seeks to have high societal impact.”