Engineering doctoral student receives Alumni Association scholarship award


By Rachel Hynds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Zhenyuan Yuan, a third-year doctoral student in electrical engineering, has been awarded the Penn State Alumni Association Scholarship for Penn State Alumni in the Graduate School. This award provides recognition and financial assistance to Penn State graduate students who received their undergraduate degree from Penn State as well, according to the Penn State Alumni Association website.

Along with his success in math and science classes growing up, Yuan said his lifelong interest in machines inspired him to study engineering. His coursework and research as an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn State reflects this. According to Yuan, some of his favorite classes have been those related to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

“It’s one of the hottest topics in engineering right now,” Yuan said. “AI is making everything smarter and can save people from tedious and dangerous work. It’s shaping the future right now, and I think I can take it one step further.”

Currently, his research involves safe machine learning for multi-robot systems and the advancement of AI. Yuan said his work involves making robots that can help humans with physical labor and creating robots that learn from and improve their performance while operating. Yuan said the unpredictability of reality and the importance of ensuring safety for both humans and robots have been some of the challenges in his research.

“This can be a challenge,” Yuan said. “Machines have to operate in our human society, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in real life … there are always potential safety issues that could arise. [We’d have the machine] learn during their operations and improve their performance, while ensuring safety of both the machine and humans.”

This involvement in robotics started while he was an electrical engineering and math undergraduate student, when he worked as a researcher in the Networked Robotic Systems Lab in the mechanical engineering department.

“There, I had the opportunity to work very closely with some of the brightest graduate students,” Yuan said.

Yuan said that these graduate students inspired him to stay at Penn State after finishing his undergraduate degree. They gave him insight on doctorate programs that helped him make his decision to stay.

Yuan also credited his adviser, Minghui Zhu, associate professor of electrical engineering, for encouraging him to apply for the Alumni Association scholarship, and for being a close mentor to him in both his undergraduate and graduate years and helping him prepare for his professional career.

“This is a well-deserved honor for Zhenyuan,” Zhu said. “Zhenyuan is strong in theory and mathematics, and he also has abundant hands-on experience with robots. These capabilities allow him to address challenging research problems, which have the potential to impact real-world robotic systems.”

Yuan currently focuses on his research and will begin teaching in the later years of his program. He said he aspires to begin a career in academia after completing his degree.

“[I’d like to] teach, but also have a startup on the side,” Yuan said. “[Through my work with the startup] I can directly relate to what [the students] are working on and teach better at a faster pace.”


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Megan Lakatos

A person wearing glasses, a black turtle neck, and a yellow jacket poses outside on a winter day in front of some trees

Zhenyuan Yuan, doctoral student in electrical engineering in the Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. IMAGE: PROVIDED BY ZHENYUAN YUAN