International Robotics Conference Recognizes Dean Mark Spong

The International Workshop on Recent Developments in Robotics and Control held at UT Dallas left electrical engineering senior Il-Taek Kwon awed by the information shared and humbled by the presenters.

“This is inspirational, and I’m motivated to learn more,” he said.

Dr. Mark Spong

Dean Mark W. Spong has a discussion with workshop participants.

About 60 of the most renowned researchers in the robotics and control fields participated in the two-day workshop in November. They came from throughout the United States and countries such as Germany, France, Japan and Sweden to present recent innovations and future directions of the closely related fields. Many of the participants had established the foundations of modern robotics and control theory and their applications in practice.

Students in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science made poster presentations of their own work to the esteemed group.

“I’ve read so many of their books and papers,” said Jaeyeon Lee, a doctoral student in electrical engineering who holds a master’s degree in robotics. “I imagined who they were, but today I can meet these people who are so well known in the field.”

The workshop was held in honor of Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Jonsson School. The event was held in recognition of Dean Spong’s leadership and contributions to the field on the occasion of his 60th birthday. In light of the occasion, several presenters included colorful descriptions of the educator in their remarks.

Dr. Kevin Lynch, now a professor at Northwestern University, was once a graduate student who had stayed up too late the night before a guest lecture by Spong. Instead of choosing to ignore Lynch as he slept during the lecture, Spong called on Lynch, who was at the back of the room, and posed a question to him.

International Robotics Conference 2013

Dean Spong poses with current and former students who attended the conference.

“That was my first impression of Mark,” Lynch joked. “Great work, but he is kind of mean. Fortunately, things have gotten better.”

Dr. Magnus Egerstedt, now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was an admirer of Spong’s work, specifically that Spong could build both solid theorems and practical systems. Then, they became friends on Facebook.     

“All of a sudden, I learned things about Mark Spong that I probably, maybe shouldn’t know,” he joked.

“Mark gets really annoyed about funny things sometimes,”  he said, referring to a Facebook rant about the use of “between you and I,” which Spong posted was like “fingernails to the blackboard.” Egerstedt also gave examples of Spong’s humorous commentary about politics and his love of family.

While there were shared laughs and stories, most presenters spoke of being deeply impressed by Spong’s ability to create theoretical solutions to control problems, and to build the machines to test and prove the theories.

“What Mark did consistently over his career was identify a physical problem, abstract out the math, and develop a solution– it is a beautiful thing,” said Dr. Jessy Grizzle, Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, who called Spong a mentor. “Then, he always took his answer back to the problem, and identified the superiority of his solution.”

“He rewrites math in a language that a user can understand, and then his answers became a user’s manual and a fundamental contribution to the field. Mark was able to do this time after time after time.”

Dr. Jessy Grizzle,
professor of engineering,
University of Michigan

Grizzle noted that Spong, holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair in Electrical Engineering and the Excellence in Education Chair, received the 2011 Pioneer in Robotics and Automation Award from the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, an exceptional feat since the award is typically not given for proving mathematical theorems.

“His papers have an impressive number of citations, but the reason Mark got the award was people started implementing his solutions worldwide,” Grizzle said. “He rewrites math in a language that a user can understand, and then his answers became a user’s manual and a fundamental contribution to the field. Mark was able to do this time after time after time.”

Dr. Nikhil Chopra, now an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees, and completed postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign under Spong’s supervision. He said Spong was a fantastic advisor during a very fruitful period in his life.

“His deep insight, astute observations, and the ability to provide intellectual freedom to his students, were pivotal in the successful completion of my graduate studies,” said Chopra, an organizer of the workshop. “His open-door policy and the ability to hear my ideas out, even during the busiest of his days at Illinois, played a very important role in my intellectual progress as a graduate student.”

“We thought it would be befitting that we celebrate and honor his achievements with his colleagues, former/current students, and friends and family, by organizing this international workshop.”

During the workshop, presenters discussed quantum control, oil drilling and riser control, cyberphysical systems, network security games, synchronization in oscillator networks and smart grids and collision avoidance for multi-vehicle systems.

Other event organizers were Fathi Ghorbel, a professor at Rice University and former graduate student of Spong’s, and Dr. Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, head of the Department of Bioengineering at UT Dallas and co-author of two books with Spong.

“The workshop gave all us an opportunity to express our admiration of Mark, and also for the UTD research community to meet in person several leading researchers who were just names to them earlier,” said Vidyasagar, holder of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Chair in Systems Biology Science. “I told him he should turn 60 again next year, so that we can organize another workshop.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].