Prof. Olgica Milenkovic receives ECE’s Distinguished Educator Award for excellence in teaching bioinformatics, machine learning, and more

Milenkovic’s research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign spans the areas of algorithm design and computing, bioinformatics, coding theory, machine learning, and signal processing.
Prof. Olgica Milenkovic (left) accepted the 2023 ECE Distinguished Educator Award from Prof. Lei Ying (right) at her award presentation on October 27, 2023.

Olgica Milenkovic, the Franklin W. Woeltge professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), returned to the University of Michigan on October 27, 2023 to receive the ECE Distinguished Educator Award and present a lecture.

The ECE Distinguished Educator Award is the highest recognition granted by ECE to its alumni in academia and recognizes those who have made a significant and lasting impact in education.

“At some point, you start measuring your success and the quality of your achievements through your students,” Milenkovic said. “Everything becomes about how well your students did. How well are their publications received? Did they get their career awards? That is the best thing, at least in my experience, to observe and cherish.”

Milenkovic earned her Master’s Degree in Mathematics in 2001 and PhD in Electrical Engineering:Systems in 2002 from U-M, and she spoke about how influential her experience at U-M has been on her life and career.

“I reference the song ‘Those were the days’ in my talk title, because I hope that conveys how much I enjoyed my time here, and how much I appreciate being a Michigan alumna,” Milenkovic said. “It’s as if no time has passed since the last time I was here. The spirit of the place is still the same. And the dreams we all had as students are still intact.”

I hope that conveys how much I enjoyed my time here, and how much I appreciate being a Michigan alumna.

Prof. Olgica Milenkovic

Research

Milenkovic heads a research group that spans the areas of algorithm design and computing, bioinformatics, coding theory, machine learning and signal processing. She specializes in DNA storage, compressive sensing, low rank matrix completion, community detection, hypergraph clustering, and ordinal data processing. 

Milenkovic was among the first researchers to study DNA-based storage system design, which explores the possibilities of using DNA to house archives of digital data instead of the traditional exabyte data centers. Exabyte data centers are massive and expensive to maintain, and the volume of digital data we produce everyday – from cat videos to ebooks to recipes for apple crisp – is increasing exponentially. DNA storage systems, however, can store massive amounts of data more efficiently.

Milenkovic developed the first prototype of a random access and rewritable DNA storage system, and her group demonstrated the practicality of this method by storing a number of Wikipedia pages in DNA. Her work led to the creation of a special program by an industry Consortium and IARPA, which seeks to build a scalable and cost-efficient storage system by the year 2024.

Her research in the area of compressive sensing connected the fields of high-dimensional statistics, dimensionality reduction algorithms, and information theory. In particular, she developed one of the state-of-the-art methods for greedy-like compressive sensing reconstruction, termed Subspace Pursuit, and proceeded to apply it in the area of gene regulatory network analysis for the purpose of discovering causal transcriptional interactions. She also proposed a new Boolean compressive sensing paradigm, which aims to replace linear projections with highly non-linear operations that better capture the real biological sensing process.

More recently, Milenkovic has been working on new higher-order clustering algorithms, also known as motif or hypergraph clustering techniques. Her team presented their work at top machine learning conferences, such as Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) and International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML), including a “Spotlight” presentation at the NeurIPS 2017 conference.

She has received many awards, including the NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, the DARPA Young Faculty Award, the Dean’s Excellence in Research Award, and several best paper awards. In 2013, she was elected a UIUC Center for Advanced Study Associate and Willett Scholar. She was elected Distinguished Lecturer of the Information Theory Society in 2015. In 2018, she became an IEEE Fellow.

Ann Arbor Days

I wish that the world would take a template from Ann Arbor, because this is a very special place where you put aside all your differences.

Prof. Olgica Milenkovic

In the 90’s, Milenkovic was trying to decide where to go to graduate school. She asked her friend, Steve Mclaughlin, for his advice. Mclaughlin, the current Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, did his PhD in ECE at U-M (and is also a recipient of the ECE Distinguished Educator Award). He told her, “It’s a no-brainer. You have to go to Michigan.”

“I can say for sure that I never regretted taking the advice that Steve gave me to join Michigan,” Milenkovic said.

Milenkovic had immigrated from Yugoslavia, and she loved exploring the history and culture of Ann Arbor. She enjoyed researching famous artists who attended U-M, like Iggy Pop and Madonna, and she learned all about American football when U-M won the 1997 National Championship after defeating Washington State in the Rose Bowl. Notably, she experienced Little Caesar’s pizza here for the first time, which helped sustain her through much of her graduate school career.

“It took me no time to start calling Ann Arbor my home,” Milenkovic said. “It’s a great place to start your career, and it’s a great place to live in general.”

It took me no time to start calling Ann Arbor my home.

Prof. Olgica Milenkovic

In addition, Navin Kashyap (MSE Math PhD EE:S 2001) was the first to suggest their research group meet at the iconic Ann Arbor locale, the Brown Jug.

“The first time I entered it, I said, ‘could Navin have picked a worse dump?’” Milenkovic said. “But you quickly get so fond of that place. And Navin was right – we had some of our most productive homework and research sessions there.”

Milenkovic was particularly interested in learning about the history of Native American tribes in the area. The University of Michigan was formed and has grown through connections with land stewarded by Niswi Ishkodewan Anishinaabeg: The Three Fires People, who are the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, along with their neighbors the Seneca, Delaware, Shawnee and Wyandot nations.

Milenkovic enjoyed attending several powwows, including a Dance for Mother Earth ceremony in Pontiac that made a big impression on her.

“Respect native people and heritage,” Milenkovic said. “And treasure Michigan’s wildlife and land, for it’s a beautiful place.”

Respect native people and heritage, and treasure Michigan’s wildlife and land, for it’s a beautiful place.

Prof. Olgica Milenkovic

Above all, Milenkovic stressed the value of the friends she made here, including Tara Javidi, (MS EE:S, MS Applied Mathematics, PhD ECE) – a Professor of ECE at the University of California, San Diego, and another recipient of the ECE Distinguished Educator Award – who was the first person to greet and welcome Milenkovic at U-M.

“At Michigan, you make friends for life,” Milenkovic said. “I wish that the world would take a template from Ann Arbor, because this is a very special place where you put aside all your differences. My best friends from Michigan were people of all religions and all ethnic backgrounds, and we got along amazingly well. Nothing would stand in the way of our friendship.”

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