CS Alumni Dong Li: In search of the most important problem
As a young graduate student, Dong Li started his educational journey as a doctoral student in the Computer Science Department at Virginia Tech in 2006. He came to Blacksburg with two master’s degrees and lots of ideas.
Thinking back on his academic path, Li recalls the varying points of interest that have constructed his way forward by citing Steve Jobs:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
With an insatiable intellectual curiosity, Li saw possible research ideas everywhere.
Professor Kirk Cameron, Li's advisor, remembers the frequency of his ideas. “Most of them had merit,” said Cameron. “I would often say to him: ‘Write that down and we can revisit later.’ He needed to wrap up his dissertation before moving into new areas of research that he found interesting and intriguing.”
His co-advisor Professor Dimitrios Nikolopoulos also remarked on Li’s propensity for pursuing his interests and inquiries: “I always thought of Dong as the best continuous learner I have ever met -- at work, or in life. This has been his unique strength and what sets him apart from so many talented people in our field.”
During his time in CS@VT, he learned to think like a computer scientist. Li’s deep disciplinary engagement in high performance computing and system architecture provided a lens through which he viewed the world around him and with which he was able to “connect the dots.”
His knack for identifying new and interesting problems and his passion for learning has served Li well in his career as an academic. He credits Professor Wu Feng with encouraging him to go into academia.
“He told me that it’s tough, but that I shouldn’t get discouraged,” Li reflects, but he did not go into higher education right away.
“After I completed my Ph.D., I took a position as a research scientist at Oakridge National Laboratory working on next-generation supercomputing. It was here that I was able to apply the communication skills I learned from Virginia Tech. I learned how to ask about and listen for the most important problem.”
Now, as an associate professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Merced, Li advises his own students to locate and pursue the “most important problem” in their own research.
His students have every reason to is follow Li’s advice. Still in the early stages of his career, Li has impressed the broader community of his peers in high-performance computing and consistently has multiple papers in top venues. Considered a pioneer in researching reliability in large-scale systems, he directs the Parallel Architecture, System, and Algorithm (PASA) Lab, directs the NVIDIA CUDA Research Center, and serves as a co-director of the High Performance Computing Systems and Architecture Group at UC Merced.
Among other collaborators, Li works with the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, the Argonne National Lab, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and engages in large-scale, mission-critical work for the Department of Energy.
Since joining UC Merced in 2015, Li has secured 24 research grants with funding that totals more than $3.1 million, including an NSF CAREER Award in 2016.
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