An Unconventional, Unexpected, Outstanding PhD

Dr. Alireza Khodamoradi successfully defended his PhD thesis “Reshaping Deep Neural Networks for Efficient Hardware Inference”. Ali’s PhD has been unconventional in many ways — starting from his admission into UCSD, his unrelenting desire to get a PhD, and his ability to constantly surprise and impress.

Ali’s UCSD journey started almost a decade ago. He was working at the time in a state prison and applied for the WES MAS in the first year of that program. He was rejected. As soon as he was notified of his rejection, Ali contacted me (as WES program director) asked what he could do to get in. I told him to take some UCSD Extension classes as I tell all students in this position.

Hiking to Shadow Lake during the Kastner Research Group Retreat.

For the majority of rejected candidates, they ignore this advice and I never see them again. Ali is unconventional. Not only did he enroll in classes, he also wanted to do some research. I gave him the opportunity to work in our Engineers for Exploration project to demonstrate his skills and more important show us that he was ready and willing to excel in a top graduate program. He volunteered as a researcher and did some really fantastic work as a researcher in the Intelligent Camera Trap project and eventually became the leader of the Angry Birds projects.

The following year, he applied again to the MAS program. He was accepted!

During the WES MAS program, Ali told me that he wanted to do a PhD. I told him that this was very unlikely, that it was not the intended path for WES MAS students, that it would be very challenging to transfer into the PhD program, and that there was no precedent for this. I told him that if he really wanted this, he had to continue to do well in the program and excel in research. Honestly, I did not think that he would get into the PhD program. Again, Ali surprised and took the unconventional path. He become the first WES MAS student to be placed into the PhD program. To date, he is still one of only two WES MAS students to go on to a PhD (and the only one to finish the PhD).

Ali is an amazing educator. He played an integral role in the development of much of the core material of the WES MAS program. He made substantial contributions to the curriculum in my HLS class, but also other embedded classes. He TA’ed almost his entire PhD career, mostly because the program would not have survived without him.

Ali is an outstanding system builder. His work always had an applied aspect. He was a magician at getting the FPGA tools to work and building complete systems. During his PhD, he worked at Cognex and Xilinx to develop cutting edge technologies used in real-world scenarios.

Finally, and not to be overlooked, Ali is a stellar researcher. His PhD research made fundamental advances in hardware accelerated systems for spiking neural networks and for reshaping deep neural networks for implementation on FPGAs. This research was motivated by his time at Xilinx Research Labs where he spent the last 6 months of his PhD. This experience put a focus on Ali’s thesis while allowing him to continue to work on important and industrially relevant research problems. And it got him a full-time job after graduation.

I’ve learned a few things about Ali. First, never judge a book by its cover. Can a telecommunications engineer at a prison get a PhD? Ali showed it is possible. Second, never bet against Ali. You will likely lose this bet. Third, unconventional routes may not be the fastest routes, but they are often the most rewarding.

Congrats Dr. Khodamoradi!