CSL alum ChuChu Fan wins PhD Thesis Award

9/23/2020 Lizzie Roehrs, CSL

Written by Lizzie Roehrs, CSL

For her exemplary work in addressing major societal problems related to autonomous verification, CSL alumna ChuChu Fan has been awarded the 2020 CSL PhD Thesis Award. This honor is bestowed annually to a researcher whose PhD thesis makes advances in a disciplinary area that has an interdisciplinary angle. She will officially receive this award and present her research on Wednesday, October 7 at 4pm.
CSL Alum Chuchu Fan
CSL Alum Chuchu Fan

In 2013, ChuChu Fan joined CSL Professor Sayan Mitra’s research group. It was there that she spent 6 years working on developing formal verification and synthesis techniques to improve autonomous vehicle safety.

Now starting a new role as a faculty member at MIT, Fan reflects on her time at CSL, saying that it is difficult to choose one favorite project from her time at CSL because they were all important elements of defining who she was as a Ph.D. student.

How did your experiences at CSL and Illinois help you get where you are now?

Fan: “Everything I learned at Illinois about how to conduct research is going to be helpful in my new job. During the six years I spent as a PhD student, I learned so much about how to become a researcher from my advisor and my colleagues. I met so many amazing researchers at Illinois and CSL, and they are all definitely are role models for me.”

Can you talk about the awards you’ve received for your work?

Fan: “I received multiple prestigious awards including the Chinese Outstanding Student Abroad Award (2019), the Young Researcher for Heidelberg Laureate Forum (2017), and the Rising Stars in EECS (2016). I was an EMSOFT'16 Best Paper finalist, and I won the Robert Bosch Best Verification Award in CPSWeek'15. 

My research achievements were also recognized by UIUC with the Robert T. Chien Memorial Award (2019), a Mac Van Valkenburg Research Award (2018), a Yi-Min Wang and Pi-Yu Chung Endowed Research Award (2017), and a Rambus Fellowship (2016).

I also attended the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) which is a networking conference where 200 carefully selected young researchers in mathematics and computer science spend a week interacting with the laureates of those disciplines. I spent time with the recipients of the Abel Prize, ACM A.M. Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing, Fields Medal, and Nevanlinna Prize.

Another event I attended was Rising Stars. It’s an academic career-building workshop that brings together top female graduates in the fields of electrical and computer engineering and computer science for two days of scientific interactions and career-oriented discussions. I definitely recommend female students at CSL to apply.”

How do you use what you learned at CSL in your current position?

Fan: “First of all, my Ph.D. advisor’s enthusiasm, dedication, creativity, and perfectionism about research have shaped my personality as a researcher. A lot of other professors at CSL have provided invaluable insights, feedback, and suggestions for students like me to start an academic career. More importantly, through collaboration and communication with these professors, I got to learn how extraordinary researchers think, collaborate, and solve problems. These are extremely useful resources for me as I start my current position.”

What are you looking forward to the most in your new position at MIT?

Fan: “MIT is one of those places like the University of Illinois that gathers the smartest people in the world. I am most excited about being able to work with those extraordinary researchers and students. Also, working at MIT means that I will have more opportunities to be exposed to the world’s biggest challenges. By solving these, we could potentially change the world.”

What advice do you have for current students?

Fan: “One piece of advice I always give to junior students is that you should focus on producing great work without thinking too much about what benefits that work can bring you. The second piece of advice is that time passes by very quickly. Time management skills are some of the most important things a student can have. The third piece of advice is that the most valuable thing a Ph.D. student can do is build mutual trust between themselves and their advisor(s). A good advisor-advisee relationship is half the battle.” 

Fan’s admiration for her PhD advisor was certainly reciprocated. CSL professor Sayan Mitra said she “demonstrated discipline” and that it was “fun working with her”.

What made Fan a particularly special student?

Mitra: “Our innovation engine at CSL works because of the brilliant individuals that come to work with us from all over the world. Within that very special group, Chuchu stood out for her ability to be both deliberate (in developing new ideas) and zealous, even impatient, (in executing those ideas).  As Chuchu matured as a researcher and started to see her work get some visibility and success, she demonstrated discipline to continue to be uncompromising about the “small” details. In my view, these are desirable qualities for a scientist.”

Based on what you saw during her time at CSL, what kind of work can we expect to see from her in the future?

Mitra: “By the time she graduated, Chuchu had published 5 papers in the Computer Aided Verification (CAV) conference. One does not see that kind of record often. I’d like to see her become a leader in the field and bend the engineering practice and certification of critical systems towards using rigorous algorithmic methods. I am sure she will be a role model for future researchers.”

Do you have a particular memory that sums up your experience with having ChuChu as a student?

Mitra: “I’d say that every time Chuchu and I would discuss an idea or intuition or formalization on the whiteboard, she’d come back within a week either with proof that the idea works (typically with working code demonstrating it) or, more often, come-up with a counterexample illustrating the gaps in the intuition. This really kept the ideas churning. As they say, a way to have good ideas, is to have many. It was fun working with her.”  



Share this story

This story was published September 23, 2020.