Viterbi engineers itself a new future

Viterbi’s research varies as much as the global problems it aims to solve. The school’s engineers address topics like sustainability, multimedia communications, health technology and homeland security.

The focus on interdisciplinary research gives Viterbi a chance to grow in a variety of directions, collaborating with nearly every school on campus. Their administration works to support these collaborations, so that they will remain intact and fruitful.

Maja Mataric, senior associate dean for research, said interdisciplinary research is one of academia’s biggest trends, and every school will say their faculty is involved with it. Viterbi focuses on hiring strong faculty, from which quality research will follow.

“We don’t tell our faculty where they should research,” Mataric said. “Where research happens is bottom-up, because they know where the field is headed.”

Viterbi’s hiring of “talented and enthusiastic Ph.D.s” as one of the key factors in its rise in national rankings, according to Mataric.

Viterbi’s faculty is growing rapidly, as more than 30 of its 169 members joined USC in the past three years.

Mataric said although a variety of factors go into a faculty member’s decision to join USC, getting rising stars in the field increases the caliber of those who want to join the Trojan family.

“They send in more and more proposals on their own,” Mataric said. “We don’t need to push for more research because they increase the amount of research they work on.”

The creation of the Health, Technology and Engineering program this year, in partnership with the Keck Medical School, demonstrates how Viterbi will pursue and maintain the interdisciplinary research faculty are interested in.

George Tolomiczenko, HTE@USC administrative director, said interdisciplinary collaborations pull research into the real world because they address problems that are too complex to be solved by a team with the same background.

“The pull comes from problems that need interdisciplinary teams that need to find solutions, and the push comes from leadership at USC that knows that this is the way to advance research both basic and applied,” Tolomiczenko said.

The program not only produces research, but specifically caters to graduate students who want to pursue medical research from either the engineering or medical side.

“We’re trying to empower and equip students from both engineering and the medical side to be very active members of collaborative and interdisciplinary teams,” Tolomiczenko said. “We want to do that by starting that joint effort very early in their training.”

Viterbi boasts two National Science Foundation-funded engineering research centers — one of only four universities in the country to do so. The Integrated Media Systems Center was established in 1996 and renewed in 2001 and the Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Center was established in 2003.

Cyrus Shahabi, director of the IMSC, said the research centers reflect the growing trend for interdisciplinary research.

“The push was from having a single principal investigator doing research on one topic – and we just go on a small amount of money — to having multi-PI, multi-school, large centers, going after large grants,” Shahabi said. “It’s making sure the school of engineering is ‘engineering plus.’ It’s engineering plus communication, or plus health, and makes engineering an enabler for solving problems in all these other areas. ”

At the same time, he said, doing interdisciplinary research is a way to address specific problems and not an end to itself.

“We respond to things where we think there is a value we can add,” Shahabi said. “[Data management] is kind of a good area to be in, because everybody’s collecting data and everyone needs to deal with it.”