Santa Clara University

SCU Engineering News Banner

New Year, New Faculty

Yi Fang

Yi Fang, the Department of Computer Engineering’s newest faculty addition, knows that when you search Google or Yahoo or Bing with a few key words, what you are really looking for is an answer to a particular question, not a group of documents that may or may not have the information you need. So Fang, who recently received his Ph.D. from Purdue University, is working to make the next generation of search engine faster, smarter, and more intuitive than ever.

To do this, he researches and advances the fields of information retrieval, data mining, machine learning and cloud computing, designing algorithms to develop practical, intelligent systems that help users quickly find answers to complex questions. While he was at Purdue, Fang helped develop an expert search system for the State of Indiana from which users can find specialists from 18,000 experts in Indiana’s four major universities, who are ranked in authority based on criteria such as number of publications, frequency of citations, funding projects, and courses taught on a given topic. Fang’s information extraction algorithm sifts the Web for pertinent data and returns a comprehensive, Wikipedia-style result that synthesizes and organizes the material while also including links to documents from which the information is drawn. Fang’s work in entity oriented search has yielded top performance in competitions sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and he looks forward to producing a similar expert search system for Santa Clara University and the Jesuit network.fang_panthea2

Fang sees the future of his research providing a much more personalized result for the individual user. “Now, everyone pretty much sees the same results when they type in a query,” he said, “but people have different interests for the same query. One area I want to work on is to provide more personalized or customized results based on the user’s interests, browsing history, and particular intention. I want the search engine to be able to go deeper to understand the user better to provide a more relevant result. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the science that we rely on to make Web applications more intelligent and cloud computing is the computational infrastructure we need to realize the dream of an intelligent Web.”

Though Fang received several offers for faculty positions at other institutions, he chose SCU without hesitation (and not just because he is a huge fan of Steve Nash). “Santa Clara’s location, situated so close to the major search and Internet companies, is like no other,” he said; “and when I visited the department, I was quite impressed with the teaching philosophy and the quality of the relationship between students and professors here. I had not witnessed that kind of interaction at other schools. Also, when I met with Dean Godfrey Mungal, he spoke about the School’s ‘engineering with a mission’ to help the underprivileged. Coming from China, where so much of the country is still underdeveloped, I feel especially fortunate to have received the level of education and opportunities I have enjoyed, and I feel a responsibility to give back. The mission of this School is so unique, and with my expertise and technology, I can contribute so much more here to the underprivileged.”

Panthea Sepherband

It is difficult to imagine a more promising pairing of professor and institution than that between Panthea Sepehrband and Santa Clara’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. This materials scientist, who specializes in developing energy-saving materials, has an enthusiasm for teaching within the Jesuit tradition of educating the whole person while fostering integrity and empowering excellence. As she says, “While it is important to inspire a will to succeed, it is also imperative to emphasize to students the value of engineering as a profession and the obligations that we have as engineers to society, to our colleagues and to our profession.”

Sepehrband takes these obligations seriously. While earning her Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo in Canada, she developed an algorithm for simulating the microstructural evolution in aluminum alloys specifically designed for green vehicles. “The goal was to develop aluminum sheets to be used in cars to reduce weight and improve the efficiency of fuel use,” she said. Her work enabled modeling that included multiple concurrently occurring time-dependent phenomena, significantly improving simulation techniques for predicting complex microstructural evolution in the material that could shave 47% of a car’s weight, leading to a tremendous reduction in fuel consumption.

“Material properties are determined by their microstructures and atomic arrangement,” she said; “Both graphite and diamonds are made from pure carbon, but their atomic arrangement determines their properties. My work on materials characterization and multi-scale computational materials modeling can help tailor the microstructure to control material properties for specific purposes. In the past, scientists and engineers attempted to control microstructures through trial and error; now we can begin to replicate the process of material evolution at atomic, nano-, and microscales using the computer to model how changes to the properties affect materials and to predict how the mechanical and electrical properties can be developed. We’re not all the way there yet, but that is the ultimate goal.”

Sepehrband envisions her research as applicable to many materials and is looking forward to expanding applications beyond aluminum to other materials used in energy technology. She is also working on solid state hydrogen storage and expects to get students involved with her research in this area, as well. “Once I have taught for a quarter or two, I will have a better perspective of the students and their background and can design my research projects on metallic materials and hydrogen storage with their talents and interests in mind.”

“When I visited the Santa Clara campus, I felt this was the best match for me, honestly,” she said. “I love teaching and research, both, and I was looking for a university with a balance between the two.” Santa Clara’s ranking as one of the top engineering schools in terms of percentage of women faculty was a plus, as well. “I am very eager to promote female engagement in engineering,” she said. “Women bring new perspectives, new ideas to the engineering world, but it can be intimidating for young women to enter this field. Often, high school girls have misconceptions about engineering. Santa Clara’s student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers is working to change those perceptions, and I am looking forward to working with our students in that way, too.”