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Women in Engineering
11 / 12 / 2015
Women in Engineering: meet Prof Qian Zhang
  • Professor, Computer Science and Engineering
  • Fellow, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Co-Director and founder, Huawei-HKUST Innovation Lab
Prof Qian Zhang

Joining HKUST in 2005 after a career in the industry, Prof Qian Zhang shared her great joy of turning discoveries to the benefit of humanity.

1. Why did you choose to go into engineering and your particular areas of focus?

When I was 17 years old and was about to choose computer science as the major for my undergraduate studies, I didn’t know much about different careers. I was fairly good at math and science in the secondary school, thus when my parents encouraged me to get into engineering and I thought why not. Then I naturally got into the computer science program at Wuhan University.
Back in 1990, computers weren’t ubiquitous like they are today. They were ridiculously expensive for what they could do, too. We as undergraduate students from computer science department still needed to apply for a special ticket to use computer (at that time was 286 desktop) for 2-3 hours a week only. It was simply amazing to see my designed LISP program can conduct automated theorem proving by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) technology. 
Motivated by being able to invent something new, I continued my postgraduate studies and later joined Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA). The time that I spent at MSRA was really wonderful. I not only got the chance to challenge myself by developing new technologies for efficient multimedia delivery over Internet and mobile wireless networks, I also got self-rewarded by being able to transfer the proposed new technology into real products and improved lots of users’ experience in using computer. One of our works related to network condition probing had been successfully transferred into Xbox product and helped users find better partners (the ones that have smaller network latency with the game player) to win the game. I should say the feeling that your own proposed technology can really be adopted by significant number of users is really awesome. 
2. How did you view your career path when you set out? Were you inspired by any person or event?
I would like to value joining Microsoft Research Asia as the true starting point for my career development. I learned a lot in MSRA. The most important thing I learned from my mentor, Dr Yaqin Zhang, is to conduct world-class research for solving real problems and making significant impact, rather than make incremental enhancement over the state of art. Moreover, we should be very confident about our own research work as we are the ones who spend most efforts to investigate the specific problem in the deepest manner.
Just to give an example. With the proliferation of wireless networks and mobile devices, we were facing the integration of non-homogeneous networks, such as wireless wide area networks (e.g. 3G networks) and wireless local area networks (WLAN). It was natural to expect a mobile host to maintain continuity of connection while satisfying the quality of service requirements for a variety of applications when the end-user roamed across heterogeneous wireless networks. Back in year 2002 when we tried to tackle such a problem, the existing work only dealt with the switch between the base stations or access points in the homogeneous wireless system. When users moved across different networks, the handoff could not be triggered by the signal decay of current system, and there was no comparable signal strength available to aid the decision. Understood the unique challenges raised, I led a team to develop a novel end-to-end mobility management system, which through practical engineering, demonstrated that seamless roaming between 3G and WLAN could be achieved and meanwhile much better performance could be obtained comparing with the existing solution. This piece of work was considered in the community as one of the most original and fundamental contributions that eliminated the fundamental problem in the existing mobile-IP approach. This work led to 6 US patents and was also incorporated in Microsoft Windows-CE product.
This project actually was quite challenging in terms of both scheme design and system evaluation. I won TR-100 World’s Top Young Innovator Award (2004) mainly because of my contribution in developing such a solution. I should say I cannot make it without being encouraged by striving for excellence.
3. Why do you enjoy working in SENG? What brought you to HKUST?
When I worked at Microsoft Research Asia, I got a chance to host several professors from HKUST and their postgraduate students. I was impressed by the high quality research work they conducted when I collaborated with them. From them I could clearly see a young, energetic, yet world-class university. 
As I mentioned above, MSRA is a wonderful research lab. However, as an industry lab, it naturally has its limitation in terms of research flexibility. Business justification is needed and not easy for some research directions, especially for the wireless networking related area that I was working on. That is why when I was asked to explore academic life at HKUST, my immediate reaction was why not. 
It turns out my life at HKUST is quite nice. I can work together with brilliant students to tackle research challenges. Meanwhile, we also work closely with industry partners (e.g. Huawei Corp.) to make real impact in their long-term product development.
4. What do you see as your most satisfying achievement to date and what are your overall goals?
I would like to say my most satisfying achievement is yet to come. J
However, the work my team (my students and I) conducted has been well recognized in the research community. This includes a series of original and fundamental contributions we made in cognitive radio networks and dynamic spectrum management. 
Radio spectrum resource is of fundamental importance for wireless communications. Recent studies show there is a highly unbalanced spectrum usage in the market. While some of the spectrum bands (e.g. unlicensed band, GSM band) have seen increasingly crowded usage, most of the other spectrum resources are underutilized. This opens up new research for open spectrum and dynamic spectrum access concepts, which allow unlicensed users equipped with cognitive radios to opportunistically access the spectrum not used by primary users. 
My team started the related research quite early (back in 2005) and had worked on all the aspects related to this direction, including spectrum usage measurement, spectrum access, link-level scheduling, topology control, collaborative communications, dynamic spectrum market, spectrum auction, etc. I was elected as IEEE Fellow mainly because of my contribution in this area. Some interesting evidence to add, in several important wireless networking related conferences, such as IEEE Infocom, ICC, Globecom, more than half of the wireless papers are related to cognitive radio networks and dynamic spectrum management in recent several years.
5. Why should more women consider engineering as a career?
WHY NOT? Engineering, especially computer engineering, is an amazing area. Our life had been changed a lot with various new computer engineering related technologies. You can develop new technologies and see how your own designed technologies change/improve people’s daily life. That is just more than awesome. I would not only encourage women consider engineering as a career, but to all young generation.
6. What do you think is the key to success?
I always talk with my students that they should enjoy the things they are working on. Interest is one of the most important factors to make you successful.