Alumnus Wins Young Investigator Award In Neural Networks

Zhen Ni
Zhen Ni

By Neil Nachbar

Zhen Ni, who earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Rhode Island in 2015, has been honored as the most promising young investigator in the field of neural networks by the International Neural Network Society (INNS).

Currently an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at South Dakota State University, Ni will receive the Aharon Katzir Young Investigator Award at the International Joint Conference on Neural Networks in July in Budapest, Hungary.

The INNS young investigator award nominees are evaluated on their research records, quality and impact of their publications, research funding resources and service to the society.

“I am very pleased to hear that Zhen has been recognized with this prestigious award,” said Haibo He, Ni’s former faculty advisor at URI and current chair of URI’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering. “Zhen has made significant contributions to the subject of adaptive dynamic programming and reinforcement learning, which is one of the core driving research methodologies for the current artificial intelligence wave.”

Ni’s interest in neural networks and machine intelligence started when he became a doctoral student at URI in 2010.

“I still remember the graduate courses that inspired me to work on many interesting projects in the field of reinforcement learning and adaptive dynamic programming,” Ni recalled.

Working in the Computational Intelligence and Self-Adaptive System Laboratory under He’s supervision also gave Ni the experience and confidence he needed.

“In my first couple of years at URI, Professor He provided a lot of guidance in conducting detailed simulation experiments and writing high-quality technical papers,” Ni said. “He also encouraged me to conduct independent research. He was a perfect role model for me as a researcher, as a professor and as a person.”

He provided Ni the opportunity to organize an IEEE outreach workshop at URI and an IEEE flagship conference.

“Those were great experiences for me to build my professional network in the engineering community and cultivate my goal of having a career in academia,” Ni stated.

In 2016, Ni received the URI Excellence in Doctoral Research Award. He was presented the Chinese Government Award for Outstanding Students Abroad in 2014.

Ni has generated 27 peer-reviewed journal papers, many of which were co-authored by He during his studies at URI.

The young professor is also an associate editor of the IEEE Transactions of Neural Networks and Learning Systems and IEEE Computational Intelligence Magazine.