Featured Student of Fall Quarter 2016: Philip Brown


Philip Brown is a Ph.D student from Colorado who has been working under Faculty member Jason Marden. His research focuses on the consequences of ignoring information in multi-agent systems. After receiving his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech he went on to help start a biodiesel production company in Tennessee. In 2012 he went back to school to receive his M.S from the University of Colorado before transferring here to UCSB. His advisor, Jason Marden, writes:

“It is widely known that social systems can exhibit highly inefficient system-level behavior. Accordingly, there has been a significant research focus on the derivation of mechanisms for influencing social behavior to improve the efficiency of such systems. Philip's research has sought to address the robustness of these influencing mechanisms. More formally, is it possible to successfully influence a given social system in situations where a system-operator has uncertainties pertaining to how the actors in a society will respond to the influencing mechanisms. Focusing on the role of taxation mechanisms in transportation networks, Philip's results have identified how the information available to the system operator, pertaining to both the characteristics of the underlying network and the population's sensitivities to taxes, directly ties into the system operator's ability to do this essential task.”

Philip’s long-term goals are to collaborate with economists and computer scientists to gain a better understanding on the impact of social behavior on engineering design criteria. In his downtime he can be found on long runs or at his house making beer, wine, and bread for friends.


Hometown: Colorado Springs, CO

 B.S. Degree: Electrical Engineering, Georgia Tech

 Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: PhD Electrical Engineering, less than 2 years left

 Important Awards and Honors: CDC 2016 Best Student Paper Finalist, Hertz Fellowship Semifinalist, University of Colorado Chancellor’s Fellowship

 Graduate Study Area: Dynamical systems and control

 Main Area of Research: Influencing behavior in socio-technical systems

 Advisor and Lab: Jason R. Marden

 Research Interests: Multi-agent systems, game theory and cyber-social systems

 Professional Memberships: IEEE Student Member, Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu

 Hobbies: Long-distance running, fermenting things (I make beer, wine, and sourdough bread), trying to keep the squirrels out of my vegetable garden.

Currently what are you working on? I have a couple projects in the pipeline right now; my newest project focuses on the consequences of ignoring information in multi-agent systems.

What is your education background? I received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 2007, and then went on to help start a biodiesel production company in Tennessee. In 2012 I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Colorado, where I received my M.S. in Electrical Engineering before transferring to UCSB.


What are your long-term research goals? I’d like to collaborate with economists and computer scientists to better understand the impact of social behavior on engineering design criteria.


List some of your favorite publications. A few years ago I spent a week studying John Nash’s doctoral dissertation, “Non-Cooperative Games.” This paper fascinates me for several reasons, most of which showcase the stunning genius of Nash. The main result is quite simple (he establishes it in a mere 8 pages), stating that all finite games have at least one equilibrium point. He wrote it when he was 22 years old, it is only 28 pages long, and it won him the Nobel prize decades later. I often wonder if he realized how important it would ultimately become.

Tell us about your research. I’m interested in studying how engineered systems interact with social systems. For example, the Internet serves a complex mixture of algorithms, businesses, and individuals; internet services need to be designed to autonomously provide a good use experience to individual users, serve the financial needs of businesses, and resist exploitation by malicious algorithms. I study the fundamental theory underlying these types of interactions. 

How and why did you get into your area of research? In my first undergraduate controls course, my professor once made the passing comment that the world’s central banks view the economy as a feedback control system. When inflation is too high, the central banks raise interest rates; when inflation is low, the central banks lower interest rates. I thought this was an absolutely fascinating way of seeing the economy, so when I discovered my advisor (Jason Marden) doing research at the intersection of economics and control theory, I was hooked.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research? My path to UCSB is an unusual one. I originally started my PhD work at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as Jason Marden was a professor there at the time. About a year ago, he accepted a professorship at UCSB, and I had the opportunity to transfer my research here. Since UCSB’s reputation in controls is unparalleled, I jumped at the chance and transferred here in Winter 2016.

What do you find rewarding about your research? I like to tell people that my job is to solve math puzzles and then tell provocative stories about my solutions. These happen to be two things that I love to do. It is thrilling to find a solution to a problem that I’ve been working on for a long time.

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere, give some examples of how you collaborate. I work in an office with students of two other advisors, so there are many opportunities for collaboration. I’m currently working with Jorge Poveda on applying his control expertise to some of my social influence problems.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor. I’m a firm believer that a PhD student’s academic success hinges largely on the relationship they have with their advisor. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Jason Marden, who has been an invaluable help to me as I’ve learned to navigate the academic world.

Where will your research take you next? Next year I’m planning to go on the academic job market to look for a job as a professor.

Life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life? This has always been an important one for me. I’ve never been happy when I devote too much of my time to one single thing. Right now I’m pretty happy with my balance; I spent most of my non-research time with my wife and 7-month-old daughter, and some of that time goes to exercise and hobbies.

What is your social life like and where have you lived? My social life currently involves a lot of babbling nonsense at my baby daughter. It’s a nice contrast to the days I spend babbling control theory with my officemates. I’ve lived in Colorado, Northern Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee; I’ve also spent a few summers in Europe.