In Memoriam: 'Advisor for Life' Pravin Varaiya

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Top: Pravin Varaiya. Center: Eyad Abed with Pravin Varaiya at the 2005 Symposium honoring him. Bottom: Varaiya with then-graduate students Udit Halder (ECE Ph.D. 2019) and Vidya Raju (ECE Ph.D. 2019) in the Intelligent Servosystems Laboratory during his 2019 visit to ISR. He heard them describe work completed in their doctoral dissertations, on subjects ranging from evolutionary game theory and related controllability questions to optimal control and models of natural and synthetic flocks. Their advisor, Professor P. S. Krishnaprasad writes, “It was an inspiring occasion for the students to meet one of the great figures of the field of system science and to exchange ideas.”

Pravin Varaiya, noted Professor Emeritus in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department (EECS) and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, has died at age 82. Varaiya was an advisor, mentor and friend to several generations of ISR and ECE faculty and students, particularly those in the broad field of control. He passed away at his home in Berkeley, Calif., on June 10, 2022.

Born in India in 1940, Varaiya earned his Electrical Engineering Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1966 as a student of Lotfi Zadeh. Varaiya would go on to join the Berkeley EECS faculty himself and quickly became known as a brilliant researcher who could effortlessly enter new research areas and make important impacts time and again.

Fundamentally a control, optimization and systems researcher, Varaiya used his strong grounding in these areas to enter and contribute to fields such as communication networks, urban economics, electric power grids, and road transportation monitoring and automation. In Berkeley’s announcement of Varaiya’s passing, Magdalene Crowley wrote, “he was known for his seminal contributions to the engineering, analysis, and design of complex energy, transportation, and communication systems, and is credited with spearheading the self-driving car revolution in the 1990s.

Varaiya won the IEEE Control Systems Award (2002), the Bellman Control Heritage Award (2008), the AACC O. Hugo Schuck Award (2020), and the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal (2022). The Ramo Medal citation noted him as “a recognized expert who is ranked among the world's top 100 engineering and technology scientists,” a tribute to Varaiya’s seminal contributions across many fields over his long and productive career. He was a Fellow of IEEE and IFAC, and a member of both AAAS and NAE.

ISR connections

Varaiya served on ISR’s Strategic Advisory Committee and gave a technical lecture on “Wireless Sensor Networks for Traffic Monitoring” at the Institute’s 20thanniversary celebration in 2006. He also was the last in-person ISR Distinguished Lecturer before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, speaking on two topics in early May 2019:

Making Intersections Safe with I2V Communications (a joint Advanced Networks Colloquium and Maryland Transportation Institute lecture)| video | slides |

Regulating Transportation Network Companies (ISR Distinguished Lecturer) | video | slides |

Former ISR Director and Professor Eyad Abed (ECE) was advised by Varaiya and remained a close friend for life. In June 2005, Abed organized the “Symposium on Systems, Control and Networks in honor of Dr. Pravin Varaiya.” More than 180 people attended the symposium and its related events, which were held at the Claremont Resort and Spa and the University of California, Berkeley. The event was sponsored by ISR, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and the University of California, Berkeley.

ISR remembers

Eyad Abed writes, “I joined his research group as a PhD student in 1979, when he was splitting his time as a professor in both the EECS and Economics departments. The experience was one that I treasure.

“Pravin held weekly meetings with small groups of students working on similar problem areas. Our group met on Wednesday afternoons in his office, and discussed our own and other published research in analytical studies of power system dynamics, stability and control. Pravin was an outstanding advisor, supportive, kind, and never critical, always having an air of humility despite his obvious brilliance. He was also an activist, heading a national organization for human rights in Central America at the time, and had been active as a student against the Vietnam War.”

ISR Founding Director John Baras (ECE/ISR) notes, “Pravin Varaiya was a brilliant researcher and innovator, and an inspiring teacher and mentor to many. I have always admired his technical sharpness and clear thinking as evidenced in his many influential papers and classic books. His overall philosophy on life, society, economy and work, has been insightful and influential as well.

“Pravin was a friend and supporter to many ECE and ISR people for many years, even before ISR was created. I have deeply appreciated his friendship, advice and mentoring for many years—since 1972! But above all Pravin was a wonderful person, always friendly and generous to so many. We met over coffee and cookies this last February when I visited Berkeley for a week. As usual, we had a fun discussion on both technical and social matters. He was quite positive and cheerful at that meeting. May his memory be eternal.”

Abed concludes, “His intellectual curiosity was without bounds, and his knowledge extended beyond science and technology into social sciences and literature. He was truly a renaissance scientist, and more importantly, a wonderful and humble human being who treated everyone with care, kindness and respect. It is therefore not surprising that he was admired and loved by so many around the world. He was my advisor for life, not just during my graduate studies. I will miss him dearly.”

Published June 15, 2022