Fall 2018: Daniel Lazar


Name & Nickname: Daniel Lazar (Danny)
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Previous Degrees: B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Washington University in St. Louis, 2014
Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: 3rd year Ph.D. student.
Professional Memberships: IEEE Controls Systems Society, student member
Hobbies / Activities / Interests: Mostly outdoors stuff – climbing, hiking, running, kayaking. Also movies. 
Interesting aside/fact/information about you: Bob Dylan saw me perform in a play once.


The Department: The faculty and staff are great.
UCSB: You can’t beat this location.
Santa Barbara: It’s beautiful here! If you’re into outdoors activities this is a great place to be. Cool birds here too.


Research program: CSP/Controls
Main Area of Research: Control of transportation networks shared between human-driven and autonomous vehicles.
Research Interests (list of keywords): network systems, optimization, game theory, robotics
Advisor / Lab or Group Name: Ramtin Pedarsani’s InfoNets lab (formerly the NICE lab).
Important Conferences you attend – did you present a poster or a talk?: I gave talks at CDC (2017) and ACC (2018), and I plan to give talks at WAFR and CDC this year.
Master’s Thesis or Dissertation Title OR Topic (most recent): N/A
Title of Most important publication to date and link to your CV or pub list: Our most recent work is one we recently submitted to a journal, titled “Routing for Traffic Networks with Mixed Autonomy”. A list of all publications is available at: https://djalazar.github.io/
What types of Financial Assistance have you received? I was a TA for my first two quarters and have been a GSR since then. I also work some quarters as a grader.


Research Description – geared towards prospective grad students and industry/potential collaborators: 
I’m focused on the control of transportation networks shared between human-driven and autonomous vehicles. Some topics include the following. How can we model capacity on these roads as a function of the autonomy level, the fraction of vehicles that are autonomous? If all users choose routes selfishly, how much worse can the outcome be than if everyone was socially optimally routed? How can we use the new capabilities of autonomous vehicles to influence human drivers to make choices that bring the traffic configuration closer to a socially optimal one?

I’m also hoping to start projects related to mobility-on-demand and ride-sharing services, as well as their interaction with public transportation. If some vehicles are autonomous how can we best use them to balance supply with demand and decrease the amount of time vehicles are driving without a passenger? This can involve establishing pricing schemes.   

What do you find rewarding about your research? 
I love the freedom associated with this work. If I get curious about something I can spend a couple days exclusively thinking about it. If it proves fruitful then that idea can be incorporated into the project! If not, then as my advisor says, time spent thinking is never wasted.

Collaboration: UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere. How do you collaborate with e.g., your advisor, and other faculty, groups, research areas, departments, students (in and outside your group)? What about outside of UCSB e.g., industry, other groups, faculty, and students? 
We are currently collaborating with Professor Dorsa Sadigh and her student Erdem Bıyık at Stanford, as well as Professor Sam Coogan and his student Mohit Srinivasan at Georgia Tech. I was lucky enough to go to Stanford this summer and work at Professor Sadigh’s lab, which was a great opportunity to learn more about human-robot interaction and the style of research they do in the lab. Beyond that, we collaborate via skype meetings.
Within the university I don’t have any formal collaborations but spend a lot of time chatting with other people in my lab, as well as our sibling lab, about what people are working on. We also have a game theory reading group.

Where will your research take you next? What are your personal Career Goals / Future / Industry, Gov’t or Academia? 
Not sure yet!



How and why did you get into your area of research?
It was honestly not really planned. I worked in communications for a couple years, but I was looking to switch fields a bit. I was attracted to this area because the tools you use span so many different fields, and since it’s a relatively new field there are many directions to explore. Also, transportation and infrastructure are very real issues that need to be addressed; it’s good to have something concrete in mind even if much of the work is theoretical.

Why did you select the ECE Department and UCSB in regards to your research area? 
I selected the ECE department at UCSB because of the overall strength of the department. I had not yet decided on my exact topic of study.

What are your thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor: 
It’s interesting working in this environment. There are a lot of benefits -- the mentorship is great, as is working closely with other grad student-researchers. There can be drawbacks as well, though I have not personally experienced them. Being dependent on a single person for funding can put student-workers in a precarious position.



Academically, what do you think are the strengths of the department's graduate program at UCSB? 
The professors are incredibly knowledgeable, and the classes are great. CCDC is a very good resource; my undergraduate education is more in communications than controls, so the seminars are great for learning about the broad field of controls.

Favorite course taken and why? 
Many of the courses have been great, I can’t really choose just one or two. Some highlights – Prof. Pedarsani’s stochastic processes course, Prof. Alizadeh’s network optimization class, and Prof. Madhow’s course on estimation and filtering are all great. Prof. Chandrasekaran has a great teaching style, and Prof. Marden’s game theory courses are great as well. I’ve really enjoyed every course I’ve taken here.

Please share your experience about the screening exam, qualifying exam, defense exam, and working on your thesis/dissertation 
The screening exam in its current form puts undue stress on grad students, often leading to negative health effects. It should be replaced with a research presentation.

If you are or have been GSR or TA describe your experience. What classes/labs do you teach or what involvement do you have in the class? What are your thoughts on teaching? 
I was a TA for my first two quarters, for 130A (section) and 10B (lab). Teaching is fun, especially if you can get the students engaged in the material and I’d recommend everyone do it. It is a big time sink though, but gratifying. If you’re teaching section I’d recommend preparing very well beforehand and practicing it for a few patient friends.



Tell us about your quality of life as a graduate student. How do you balance school, work, social and family (if you have a family) life? 
It can be difficult – my partner is at Berkeley and my folks are in LA, so I do a lot of traveling around California. Work has a tendency to creep into time that should be social time, so make sure you don’t let that happen too much.

What is your social life like? Where do you live (Grad Student Housing, Family Housing, / Goleta / Downtown SB? What do you think about living in Santa Barbara? 
Social life is good, people are friendly here. Things are pretty low-key in Santa Barbara so usually we go to a brewery or catch a movie.
I live in Goleta, over near Ellwood Mesa. It’s a nice area, quiet and scenic, and the bike ride to campus gives me time to clear my head a bit before and after working. The best part is the Mesa, where I usually go running. While up there you have a good chance of seeing interesting birds, dolphins, and sometimes whales!
The main downside of living in this area is housing and cost of living. Housing is expensive and hard to come by.

Tell us about what did you do this summer or plan to do next summer? Travel, research at UCSB, Intern, etc. 
This past summer I was at Stanford working with Professor Dorsa Sadigh’s ILIAD lab. It was great to work closely with people in a different field! Beyond that I did some travelling, including to Milwaukee for a conference, then Chicago. I also spent a fair amount of time beyond that travelling to see family and friends.
As for next summer, I’m still figuring it out. Maybe an internship!

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students? Please include all aspects of UCSB graduate student life (research, academics and personal):
First year is very busy; you’ll have to balance research (mostly for the purpose of finding an advisor) with classes and possibly teaching. I’d say prioritize the first one, and make sure to spend time hanging out with fellow grad students. Other than that, a few thoughts:

-- Don’t underestimate the importance of finding an advisor with a similar working style to yours. That is often more important than matching the exact topic of research you are interested in.

-- Good luck with housing

-- One underrated benefit of grad school is traveling for conferences. Free trips to cool places!