Fulton grad named outstanding doctoral student for influential power electronics research

May 15, 2019

Power electronics are the middle step between the electrical grid and your electronic devices. They switch on and off to convert the electricity from your outlets to suitable currents and voltages used by computers, smartphones, appliances, data center servers and more.

With the rise of smartphones, wearable technology, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and electric vehicles — and the increase in data centers needed for the vast amount of data generated by the internet of things — more efficient power electronics are needed to keep energy usage from skyrocketing. Stephen Phillips and Houqiang Fu Stephen Phillips (left), professor and director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, presents doctoral graduate Houqiang Fu with the 2019 Palais Outstanding Doctoral Student Award at the spring 2019 Fulton Schools Convocation ceremony. Fu's academic excellence and important research on gallium nitride power electronics that operate more quickly and efficiently to save energy earned him this prestigious award. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Houqiang Fu recently successfully defended his dissertation and received his doctoral degree from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, where he researched gallium nitride power electronics that operate more quickly and efficiently to save energy.

His work in this area earned him the 2019 Palais Outstanding Doctoral Student Award for research and academic excellence. At the spring 2019 Fulton Schools convocation, Fu received a commemorative plaque and a $1,000 check. Emeritus Professor Joseph Palais and his wife, Sandra Palais, established the Palais Outstanding Doctoral Student Award in 2003 to honor exceptional electrical engineering doctoral students in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

“I am deeply honored to receive this prestigious award,” Fu said. “I am also very excited that my work in power electronics is well appreciated by the community. This award will be an important driving force for me to further pursue my career in this field.”

Gallium nitride is what is known as a wide-bandgap semiconductor material. Its material properties allow for semiconductor devices to be smaller and operate more efficiently at higher voltages, frequencies and temperatures than silicon-based semiconductor materials.

Gallium nitride gained widespread attention in 2014 when research into gallium nitride light emitting diodes, or LEDs, earned the Nobel Prize in Physics. Fu took notice of the material’s potential and dove into work on its other applications.

“The recent advent of gallium nitride has completely transformed the technological landscape of power electronics because they can drastically reduce power conversion losses compared to traditional semiconductors such as silicon,” Fu said. “It’s estimated gallium nitride can help reduce up to 70% to 90% of power conversion losses.”

Currently, about 10% of the total electricity generated in the United States is lost through power conversion using silicon-based devices. With silicon power electronics having reached their performance limit, Fu’s research demonstrated gallium nitride power electronics can be smaller, faster and more efficient.

Fu took advantage of the diverse research backgrounds of faculty in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering by collaborating with Stephen Goodnick, a professor of electrical engineering who is an expert on various aspects of semiconductors.

Fu often took an interdisciplinary approach to his research and kept an open mind about how other scientific and engineering fields could help him. He reached out beyond electrical engineering faculty to Fernando Ponce, a professor of physics, who helped him understand the underlying physics and materials science involved in his research.

“Ideas from other areas may be able to be applied to your research and give you new perspectives,” Fu said. “To widen my horizons, I often read broadly, attended seminars focused on different disciplines, and talked to researchers with different expertise.”

However, Fu’s mentor and adviser, Professor Yuji Zhao, was most instrumental to his success.

“He gave me a lot of freedom to explore during research,” Fu said. “He is also very patient, encouraging and optimistic when experiments don’t go well. And Dr. Zhao has created a very collaborative and dynamic group culture. It feels very comfortable and motivating to be in such a group.”

Zhao is a prominent gallium nitride researcher and has earned funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, NASA and more.

Fu's research "comprises a combination of efforts from theoretical modeling, materials engineering and device characterization,” Zhao said. “It is a powerful example of interdisciplinary research, which not only exemplifies a very high level of intellectual merit, but also has a broad scientific impact."

Zhao says Fu "has substantially advanced the state-of-the-art power electronics technology and has a profound impact on large-scale societal problems in energy efficiency, renewable energy and power infrastructure.”

Zhao is also impressed by the amount of technically significant results Fu achieved over the past five years, which Fu has shared in more than 30 peer-reviewed journal and conference publications, one book chapter, three patents pending and more than 30 conference presentations.

“His record of accomplishment is among the best that I have seen for a PhD student,” Zhao said. “I have no doubt that he will have a very bright future in research. His success story has shown to us that at ASU we can produce great PhD students on par with MIT, Stanford and Berkeley.”

In 2014, Fu chose to attend ASU because of the institution’s strong materials science, solid-state device and physics research. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in material physics, Fu wanted to get hands-on with those materials for his graduate studies.

“After graduation, I was eager to apply my knowledge in material physics to real devices and products that can really be used to benefit society,” Fu said. “Electrical engineering is a perfect major that mixes materials, devices and applications.”

He has been pleased with the facilities, research and collaboration opportunities he has had access to at ASU.

Now that he has completed his doctoral degree, he encourages other students to never give up during their graduate journeys.

“Stay optimistic and keep trying because there inevitably are many trials and errors awaiting you in research,” he said.

After graduation, Fu will continue working in Zhao’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program celebrates 35 years

May 15, 2019

This spring marks the 35th anniversary of ASU’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program that aims to increase the number of first-generation Arizona students who are prepared to enroll and succeed at Arizona State University.

The program was launched in 1984 by Joanne O’Donnell to address the underrepresentation of women and women of color attending ASU. Every year, the program selects hundreds of seventh grade students and family member participant teams — 650 this year alone — to become more familiar with the process of preparing for a college education through activities focused on skill building, mentorship and community-building around higher education. Monthly workshops on ASU’s Tempe campus address topics such as peer pressure, financial aid and preparing for high school. Translators are available for Spanish speakers to make the material more accessible.   Hispanic Mother Daughter Program ASU spring 2019 graduate Jackelyne Arevalo From left: Cesar Arevalo, ASU grad Jackelyne Arevalo and Delia Acosta at the 2019 spring Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program graduation celebration. Download Full Image

The program, which earned Helios Foundation support in 2007, has reached thousands of parent-student teams, and its impact has been significant. The enrollment of resident Latina women at ASU in 1984 was 556. As of fall 2018, that number increased to more than 7,000 Latina students.

The program can have a huge impact on families’ higher education goals. Liliana Campos was a participant when she was in middle school. She enjoyed the program as a student but didn’t complete it after she had her daughter, Briana. She encouraged her daughter to participate when she was old enough.

“It’s a great opportunity ... to continue my daughter’s education,” Campos said.  

Her daughter is now a senior at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, and Campos said she’s noticed how focused her daughter is on college. She has been admitted to ASU and is pursuing a fashion degree starting in the fall. Campos said the most beneficial part of the program for their family has been the community support and confidence to “believe that … it’s possible to get through college.”

“There are so many resources out there. (The mentors) pretty much guide you and give you that support,” she said.

Connecting students with resources and preparing them for the sometimes intimidating processes of higher education is a core component of the program. Leonela Urrutia is a senior at ASU and an alumna of the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program; she said the program’s financial aid workshops helped her earn a full ride to ASU. She is about to graduate with a political science degree, a minor in French and a certificate in international studies.

Urrutia is also an office assistant and peer adviser for the program, so she works on the daily functions of the workshops and also serves as a presenter, emcee and particpant mentor for the monthly workshops.

She said the program is invaluable because it lets families know that higher education goals are reachable.

“I tell all the students that this program is for them and the resources are right in front of them. If they’re thinking about it they should just take the leap of faith,” Urrutia said. “The program is going to help educate you and your parents or guardians about college and higher education. (These are) goals that are attainable, even though they seem so unrealistic to some.”

Urrutia has seen the program’s effect on her whole family. Her older sister, Katherine, went through the program and attended Grand Canyon University with scholarships. Urrutia said her mom, Glenda, was inspired through the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program to get a certificate to be a teaching assistant. Her mother now works with a speech pathologist after spending time caregiving and working in the cleaning industry.

“My mom encourages all parents she knows to go through the program,” said Urrutia, who plans on pursuing work with the state legislature advocating for education and immigration equity after she graduates.

Participants and alumni often introduce the program to others, and partnerships with schools and community organizations have also fueled the program’s success over the decades.

Cyndi Tercero, who was awarded the program’s Commitment to Service Award at the recent Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program graduation ceremony on May 1, has been involved in the program for more than 20 years as an educator at Carl Hayden High School and later as an administrator at Phoenix Union High School District.

Tercero saw early on the contributions that the program made to students. A turning point for her was in the mid-1990s when she was at Carl Hayden; Tercero remembers an intelligent young girl in tears because her grandmother told her to “stop the crazy talk about going to college” because her role as a woman in the community was to find a husband.

“Her parents and grandparents were shocked that at the school level we were trying to encourage her to go further on,” she said.

The student was not in the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, but some of her friends were.

“I just kept thinking, what a difference the program could have made for her,” she said.

Since then Tercero has served on the former Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program board and been an advocate for higher education for students in Phoenix. She said she’s humbled and honored to receive the award.

“I’ve been so committed to this program. I was not a Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program alum; I didn’t get to experience the program firsthand but I know I got to experience how it impacted many of our students.”

Tercero said that through the program, students and parents all benefit from the mindset that college is an attainable goal, including living on campus and having a full campus experience.

The impact has been felt among a diverse group of students. Although it has retained its original name, the program also embraces participants of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and sons and fathers or other caregivers have also participated. Alumni of the program have gone on to diverse careers, including in broadcast media, financial planning, teaching, nursing and engineering. And the number of teams served is growing to 1,000 annually in the next two years, including an expansion to ASU’s West campus in Glendale.

“It has been so inspiring to see all of the classes of mothers and daughters enter and graduate from this program over the years,” said Anita Verdugo Tarango, director of outreach for ASU Educational Outreach and Student Services. “We are building skills, community and a legacy of higher education for entire families through the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, and we’re thrilled to celebrate 35 years of this work at ASU.”

Find out more about the program, including how to apply or support the program, at the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program website.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services