Most universities in Australia would love to have the recipe for a world-beating research centre. Or for successful Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship applications, a few fruitful ARC Linkage Projects, a fistful of IBM PhD Fellowships, or the sort of applied research outcomes that have industry clamouring to work with them.
QCIS Director Professor Chengqi Zhang believes he knows the secret formula. Zhang is convinced his centre’s success can be chalked up to what he calls the “triangle strategy of leadership”.
“This is a strategy that I’ve devised to capture the essence of how we conduct business at QCIS. It basically boils down to three key components: brand, talent and governance,” he says.
The brand component is about the quality and impact of the research being conducted at the centre. “It’s essentially about identifying your mission – what sort of research do you want to be doing? What sort of reputation do you want to build for your centre? And how do you go about it?” Zhang says.
The approach is a good match for the UTS Research Strategy 2010-2015, which has a focus on both theoretical and applied research that delivers real benefits for society, industry and the environment.
The talent section of QCIS’s strategy reveals Zhang’s insatiable ability to recruit the best of the best in quantum computation and data analytics from around the world. Three questions Zheng asks himself are: how desperately do you need a certain researcher? How will they fit into your team structure? What do you have to do to get them?
“We handpick people from around the world who have the outstanding track record, the drive and the ability to really succeed.”
When it comes to governance, the strategy is centred on effective leadership – a topic Zhang is particularly passionate about.
“Being an effective leader means having a vision, and the ability to implement that vision at all levels of an organisation by communicating with the people around you and making the most of your planning skills.
“You need a genuine vision – What are you hoping to achieve in the next three years? In the next six? And how do you use recruitment, retention and motivation strategies to get you to those goals?”
Zhang’s strategy is already paying off. QCIS’s numbers are impressive, not least for a university and a centre that are relative newcomers to the research scene.
QCIS researchers are currently working on nine highly competitive ARC Discovery Projects and four ARC Linkage Projects with companies like IBM and Westpac. They have published 212 papers in prestigious journals and conferences since 2008 and are expecting to bring in nearly $1.8 million in research revenue this year.
In addition, three of the only four PhD students in Australia to receive an IBM PhD Fellowship between 2010 and 2012 are students from the centre (the fourth is also a UTS student). But, perhaps most significantly, QCIS is also home to four ARC Future Fellows – Associate Professor Sanjiang Li, Professor Xingquan Zhu, Associate Professor Yuan Feng, and Associate Professor Michael Bremner – whose fellowships denote their outstanding achievements in Australian research.
“Future Fellowships are some of the most highly contested awards in the country,” says Zhang. “It’s these academics who will play key roles in the future of research in their fields.”
At the same time, QCIS is building a reputation as a top-notch partner for industry organisations seeking data mining and analysis expertise. Multinational organisations like IBM and Alcatel have built lasting research collaborations with QCIS on a range of projects, including technologies that protect companies against fraudulent online activities, and a number of data mining and analysis projects that assist organisations in managing and interpreting their data.
Zhang himself is a member of the ARC College of Experts for 2012 – 2014 and is recognised as an international leader in the field of information technology. Last year, he won a NSW Science and Engineering Award in the Engineering and Information and Communications Technology category and a UTS Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence in the Research Leadership category.
And there’s no denying Zhang loves what he does. Just talking about his researchers brings a smile to his face – he refers to them as ‘superstars’, peppering his conversation with stats and figures about their achievements.
“We’ve built a collaborative environment with a focus on excellence,” he says, beaming. “I truly believe tomorrow’s leaders are being nurtured here with us. There’s a lot to be happy about.”
Profile: IBM PhD Fellow Rony Novianto
If you’re like most people, packing your bags for a trip to Sweden would probably involve selecting clothes and personal items to take with you. But when PhD student Rony Novianto won a six-month Endeavour Research Fellowship to study at the Lund University, he got busy packing his robots.
Welcome to the world of artificial intelligence, where robots have the capacity to shape our lives and Smokey the bear and Nao (one’s a social robot, the other a soccer-playing robot) are your travel companions on international junkets.
For Novianto, robotics has been a long-term interest that stemmed from a fascination with how robots could integrate into daily living, "I always wanted to create robots to transform human lives, making our lives better and easier,” Novianto says.
“However, current technology doesn’t have the full capability to develop robots that can truly transform human lives.”
Novianto has set about rectifying this problem through his work with QCIS. He’s currently developing a novel cognitive software architecture, known as Attentive and Self-Modifying (ASMO), that can be applied to self-directing systems including software agents and autonomous robots. The architecture orchestrates information from a range of sensory data to solve complex problems.
Novianto is also quickly developing a reputation in the field of information technology. On top of his Endeavour Fellowship, he was the only candidate in Australia to receive an exclusive IBM PhD Fellowship in 2011.
“I chose to undertake a PhD to challenge and push myself to create new technologies and develop something that would advance the world,” he says.
“Working at QCIS and building connections with world-leading organisations like IBM has been a great way to start my career. I’d like to keep working in research and development to create technologies that can transform people's lives.”
Profile: ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor Sanjiang Li
Those of us who exist outside the field of information technology might find the work of ARC Future Fellow Professor Sanjiang Li a little over our heads.
As Li explains it: “My research aims to establish expressive representation formalisms of qualitative spatial knowledge and provide effective reasoning mechanisms.”
To clarify, space plays a key role in many human activities. Li’s research looks at the role of space in how ‘cognitive agents’, such as humans and robots, make rational decisions.
"While people now can easily and quickly acquire their location information with the help of mobile devices, the rapid development of technologies such as remote sensing and medical imaging has also brought us huge volumes of spatial data that's hard to process in a useful way,” says Li.
The researcher is building an internationally recognised body of work in spatial knowledge. Since joining UTS from Tsinghua University in China, his research has been reported at some of the leading artificial intelligence conferences in the world and published in the Artificial Intelligence journal, the most prestigious in his field.
In keeping with the UTS ethos of impact-driven research, the practical applications of Li’s work spell good news both for the environment and the community at large – some of his modelling work will provide a basis for monitoring critical changes in events like fires and oil spills, providing efficient techniques for solving environmental disasters and enabling the development of intelligent systems for early warning and disaster management.
"The breakthrough research in spatial cognition will bring a new generation of intelligent systems with true human intelligence. The success of this project will have big impacts on both the research community and real-world applications,” he says.