U.Va. Engineering Professor Works Across Disciplines - and Continents

March 29, 2010 — For Zongli Lin, collaborations are an essential element of his research and life.

Lin, a professor in the University of Virginia's Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, works with faculty in a variety of engineering and technical disciplines, both in the United States and China.

"As engineering systems become increasingly complicated, engineers need to work with researchers who have expertise in a variety of fields," Lin said. "In engineering, as in life, it's important to meet new people with different perspectives."

Lin's expertise in automatic control theory – a field at the foundation of everything from heating and cooling systems to unmanned aircraft – finds a variety of real-world applications through his collaborations.

At U.Va., Lin works with engineers in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering's Rotating Machinery and Controls Laboratory to create a more efficient artificial heart pump and compressors that use magnetic bearings. Working with U.Va. School of Medicine researchers, Lin helped develop a harness system that automatically adjusts its support of different-sized patients who need to walk on treadmills for gait rehabilitation.

Lin's research in cyber-physical systems that are used to coordinate a network of intelligent agents such as unmanned aircraft was started with a colleague at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The research also requires him to collaborate locally with Alfredo Garcia, a professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, who has expertise in wireless networks.

"It's very difficult to stay in your own area of expertise, unless you are doing theoretical work in a certain narrow area," Lin said.

For the past four years, Lin has helped U.Va. students and researchers who want to study and conduct research in China. 

Lin is a National Cheung Kong Visiting Chair Professor in the Department of Automation at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and was recently appointed guest professor with the university's Shanghai Center for System Biomedicine. Lin's dual appointments, and successful relationship-building with the Chinese university, led to the U.Va. Engineering School opening a satellite office at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in fall 2009.

Lin travels to China several times a year, usually for a week at a time, to fulfill the responsibilities of his dual appointment.

These international collaborations began when Lin was awarded the Cheung Kong Visiting Professorship in 2006. The appointment was part of a fellowship program endowed by the Chinese Ministry of Education and Li Ka Sing Foundation in Hong Kong. Faculty from leading U.S. universities are also placed at other major Chinese universities, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, through the fellowship program.

Among other connections between the U.Va. Engineering School and the Shanghai university, engineering alumni David Li (a 2007 electrical engineering graduate) and Qiyu Haung (who earned electrical engineering degrees in 2000 and 2003 ), are now on the faculty at the Shanghai university.

Lin is also working with the Shanghai Center for Systems Biomedicine to study how systems and control theory can be used to study biological systems. This research could lead to a better understanding of how various body parts contribute to conditions such as heart disease. The project allows him to work with Zhifeng Shao, a former professor at the U.Va. School of Medicine who was recently appointed as dean of the new center. Before Shao left to take his appointment in China, he met with James Aylor, dean of the U.Va. Engineering School, and Lin.

"Shao wanted to maintain his relationship with the U.Va. Engineering School because the Shanghai university is a strong supporter of the intersection between medicine and engineering," Lin said.

During a November 2009 trip to China, Lin traveled with Aylor and U.Va. administrators, including U.Va. President John T. Casteen III; Gowher Rizvi, vice provost for international programs; and Dudley Doane, director of the International Studies Office, to discuss plans for expanding international student and faculty exchange programs.

Both the University and the Engineering School have made increasing international scholarship a priority. In the coming years, Aylor plans to build on the connections Lin has helped initiate in China.

"By 2020, we hope that 70 percent of our students have an international experience before they graduate," Aylor said. "Thanks to Zongli's work, a number of these internships and study-abroad opportunities could be in China."

In addition to benefits from research collaborations, Lin sees the personal benefits of learning about other cultures.

Lin emigrated from China in 1989 to earn his Ph.D. at Washington State University. After working as an assistant professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, he came to U.Va. in 1997. Throughout the years, he has valued learning about American culture. It has also helped him to better understand his Chinese background.

"As a foreign student, I appreciated being in another society and learning the culture," he said. "You're not only learning about the new culture, but through the comparison between the different cultures, you're also gaining perspective and coming to understand your own culture better."

— By Zak Richards