Focus on new faculty: Po-Ling Loh, applying abstract math to real-world situations

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

Tags: ECE, Faculty, Grainger Institute for Engineering, Po-Ling Loh

Po-Ling Loh
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A new assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering uses highly conceptual calculations to tackle concrete problems like medical imaging or modeling how diseases spread.

Po-Ling Loh, who joined the faculty in fall 2016 and is also a fellow at the Grainger Institute for Engineering, arrives at Madison with a strong background in theoretical statistics, honed and refined during her graduate studies and two years as an assistant professor at Pennsylvania University. Her deep affection for advanced analytics extends all the way back to her early education.

“At the beginning of undergrad, I loved math, especially abstraction. I just thought it was really cool. But now I feel like it’s good to have applications to the real world,” says Loh.

Some of those applications include reconstructing accurate images from medical scans. Loh is looking forward to collaborating with researchers in the medical school to help doctors improve their diagnoses based on fewer measurements.

“I’m exciting about engaging with people here. I have some colleagues in ECE who have been talking to people in radiology. I think that would be a good place for me to plug in,” says Loh.

Her interest in health also extends to global problems, such as how infections take hold and potentially become epidemics. Because multiple random interacting processes determine how pathogens proliferate, describing diseases with accurate mathematical models is no simple task.

“We’re learning that you can dream up a model, but once you start talking to someone in the field, you realize that your model needs to be adjusted. Maybe you don’t have the full information that you thought you did in the mathematical world,” says Loh.

Bridging the gap between the conceptually clean mathematical world and the messy circumstances on planet earth can be challenging, but that practical ethos motivates Loh to both pursue engineering research and educate future engineers about the power of math.

“I’m teaching the undergraduate probability and stochastic processes class. The students are interested in the math not just as an end in itself, but so that they can apply it to real world problems, whether they’re going to be working in communications systems or building devices,” says Loh.

Allowing students to pursue their own passions is a central principle of her mentoring philosophy. She relishes opportunities to work on new problems based on the questions raised by her students. That research relationship is partly what set Loh down the path of mathematically modeling disease epidemics, after her trainee became interested in HIV spreading in Africa.

Loh’s enthusiasm to explore new ideas has her seeking out collaborations across campus. She plans to work with Varun Jog, who also joined the ECE faculty at the beginning of fall semester in 2016. They bring a complementary skillset to the department.

“Varun and I have started collaborating. His interest is also very mathematical and we both like working together. We’re thinking about problems that bring in both of our strengths,” says Loh.

Joining the faculty at UW-Madison represents something of a homecoming for Loh, who grew up on Madison’s west side. After spending time away in California and on the East Coast for her education, Loh is thrilled to be back among the friendly citizens of the City on Four Lakes.

“My favorite thing about Madison is the people,” she says. “People here are genuinely nice in a way that would seem really weird if you were in another state.”

Author: Samuel Million-Weaver