Harry M. Showman Prize, graduate student


Helen Durand, who has received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering, is the graduate student winner of the Harry M. Showman Prize. The award recognizes students who have effectively communicated the achievements, research, results or social significance of any aspect of engineering. Durand also received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering from UCLA. In 2014, she was the school’s Edward K. Rice Outstanding Master’s Student and this year is a co-recipient of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department’s Outstanding Ph.D. student award. In August, Durand starts a tenure-track faculty position at Wayne State University, in Detroit.

Can you explain your research interests in general terms?

My primary research interest is in process control for chemical processes (in chemical engineering, a process is a set of steps performed to make one or more products from others). Process control refers to mathematical algorithms that allow us to automate operation of chemical plants and refineries. My research in process control focuses on control designs that solve an optimization problem to determine what control actions to apply to the process. We develop control formulations, meaning that we select types of objective functions and constraints for the optimization problem to handle a wide range of industrial issues from profitability of the process to valve behavior to operational safety. We also characterize the mathematical conditions under which we can prove certain properties about the control designs (e.g., feasibility of the optimization problem and stability of a chemical process operated under the controller).

How will this be applied?

Process control is an extremely exciting research area because it is very industrially relevant. Chemical plants and refineries use many controllers, and advances in computing have opened up many new avenues for us to improve control designs (e.g., as computers become faster, it becomes possible to account for more of the process physics/chemistry in process models and to solve larger optimization problems accounting for these models, allowing us to better control processes). Every research problem that we look at is tied to a practical problem that exists in industry (e.g., reducing accidents at chemical plants or increasing the profitability of production) for which we develop an advanced control design that can be used to mitigate the issue and mathematically analyze the design to allow us to more deeply present the fundamental benefits and limitations of the methods we develop.

How did you get interested in your field?

I became interested in process control as an undergraduate. I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and I really liked a number of classes that, as I know now, are highly tied to process control, including my process control class itself, as well as a computer science class, a lot of the fundamental chemical engineering courses like fluid mechanics and heat transfer, and a numerical methods class that I took. One thing that particularly made a difference to me was the professor that I had (Professor Panagiotis Christofides) for process control and numerical methods as an undergraduate, because I really liked the way that he explained things; it fit very well with how I think so that I found it to be a very clear way of explanation. When I became a graduate student, I wanted to work for Professor Christofides because I liked the subjects he was interested in and also his teaching style. I think it is very cool to be able to trace my interest in process control particularly back to Professor Christofides being a great undergraduate instructor; it shows what a large impact a professor can make on a student.

Can you share a favorite memory of UCLA that stands out?

I have been at UCLA for nine years including my undergraduate years, so I have many fond memories. To me, the most important thing has been the friends I have made at all stages of the journey. I will focus here on my most recent five years in the doctoral program. One thing that really stands out to me has been the experience of collaborating with my lab mates on papers. I have been blessed to make lifelong friendships with the people in my research group, and there have been many times when we emailed or called each other on weekends and holidays to try to get things done together. It is such a special experience to work on teams with people like this, where you know you can count on them to be there and willing to talk with you any time of any day. It is also really fun to appreciate each person’s unique personality and to be able to make jokes with them accordingly.