Logo: University of Southern California

A Lasting Legacy

Professor Petros Ioannou is installed as the inaugural A.V. “Bal” Balakrishnan Chair.
By: Marc Ballon
April 19, 2016 —

(left to right) USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos, Sophia Balakrishnan, Professor Petros Ioannou and USC President C.L. Max Nikias. Photo credit: Steve Cohn
Professor A.V. “Bal” Balakrishnan worked at UCLA for more than five decades, making a name for himself as one of the world’s foremost experts in system, communication and control as well as random processes in engineering and applied functional analysis. Balakrishnan, the author of two-dozen books, including the classic textbook “Introduction to Random Processes in Engineering,” treasured his decades at UCLA.

But he considered USC home.

Balakrishnan, who passed away last year, came to USC in the late 1940s to study film, sent by the Indian government. After earning his first USC master’s degree, he got a second one in electrical engineering in 1950, figuring it would provide him with a solid foundation for a career as a movie sound engineer.

Hollywood and Bollywood lost out.

In 1954, Balakrishnan earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at USC, which launched him on his accomplished career. Along the way, he founded and became the first chair of UCLA’s Department of System Science; served as director of the NASA-UCLA Flight Systems Research Center; and, in 2001, received the Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award, the highest professional recognition given to control systems engineers and scientists.

So when his beloved widow, Sophia Balakrishnan, decided to endow an academic chair in his honor, she chose USC to "secure the highest honorable position for Bal's legacy," in her words.

“The name of my late husband A.V. Balakrishnan has been associated with UCLA for 53 years of his life,” said Sophia Balakrishnan, a Russian-born linguist and book translator. “But not too many people know that it was professors at USC who inaugurated Bal’s lifelong journey of great scientific accomplishments.

“It was within the walls of this university where Bal learned about American culture, cars and films, and even hamburgers,” she added. “His first close friends were students and professors at USC, and his co-editor of the book “Computing Method in Optimization Problems” was USC [electrical engineering] Professor Lucien Neustadt.”

On Monday, April 11, a distinguished group of scholars, diplomats and academic chairs gathered in the Ming Hsieh Board Room to pay homage to Balakrishnan’s legacy. Together, they celebrated the official installation of USC Viterbi Professor Petros Ioannou as the inaugural A.V. “Bal” Balakrishnan Chair of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. (Ioannou shares joint appointments in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.)

Those in attendance included USC President C.L. Max Nikias; Andrew Viterbi, namesake of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a former UCLA professor whom Balakrishnan hired for his exceptional intellect; USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos; Radhakisan Baheti, National Science Foundation program director; Sandeep Gupta, chair of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering; Professor Ravi Mazumdar of the University of Waterloo in Canada, former Balakrishnan student; Harold Mortazavian, a former UCLA colleague who later served on the NASA Advisory Council; and Andreas Kypriandes, consul general of Cyprus – Ioannou’s native country – and his wife, Mika.

A renowned scholar in area controls, intelligent transportation systems, and vehicle dynamics and control, Ioannou joined USC in 1982. He subsequently received the Presidential Young Investigator Award for his research in adaptive control, authored or co-authored eight books and 400 research papers, and became an IEEE Fellow.

“This chair is named after a very well-known, famous scientist, and to get selected to it means a lot,” Ioannou said. “Sophia wants to keep the legacy and memory of her husband going. It is very generous of her to choose USC.”

USC President Nikias remembered meeting Balakrishnan in 1979 as a young electrical engineering graduate student at State University of New York at Buffalo. “That day I felt as though I were sitting with the god of engineering,” he said. “And in many ways, I was.”

Twenty-five years later, Nikias, then dean of USC Viterbi, awarded Balakrishnan the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award in Academia.

At the chair installation, Yortsos said establishing endowed chairs and professorships help attract outstanding talent and allow USC Viterbi to recognize transformative faculty. The dean also thanked Sophia Balakrishnan for her generosity.

“For you, Sophia, this endowed chair is a link in perpetuity to the university and to one of our most esteemed USC Viterbi faculty,” Yortsos said.

University of Waterloo's Mazumdar, University Research Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said he felt privileged to have studied under Balakrishnan as a Ph.D. student. Mazumdar said his mentor's analytical and fertile mind inspired him.

"There are few scientists who can claim such a vast scope of research, but what is unique is that Bal's contributions have been seminal in that his work engendered new frameworks and methodologies," he said. "He was driven by problems and often invented the mathematics to solve them."

In her moving remarks, Sophia Balakrishnan reminisced about the couple’s life together, recounting how they attended operas, concerts and ballet. Books filled their house, along with her late husband’s notebooks “full of equations.”

“Bal was my best friend, my best companion. We were practically inseparable,” she said. “Yes, I am feeling the greatest sadness for Bal’s absence as much as I felt a year ago. But at the same time, I also have a feeling of deep gratitutde that it has been given to me to be an important part of the life of this special, wonderful man.”