C. L. Max Nikias receiving award

Shri Narayanan receives a replica of the Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering. (Photo/Steve Cohn)


Shri Narayanan named first holder of the Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering

The chair honors the legacy of USC’s 11th president and his wife

February 23, 2017 Ben Paul

USC’s first endowed chair named after the university’s current president and his wife is now officially held by Professor Shri Narayanan of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

An interdisciplinary researcher known for far-ranging work that seeks to improve society and the human condition, Narayanan is a professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. He also holds appointments in computer science, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and pediatrics.

Narayanan was installed as the first holder of the Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering on Feb. 15 in the Ming Hsieh Boardroom at Tutor Hall before a crowd of about 100 friends and colleagues. The endowed chair was created in 2016 through the gift of an anonymous donor.

For the Nikiases, the moment was a personal one. The Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering ties in perpetuity their names with USC Viterbi. It was 17 years ago that C. L. Max Nikias, then a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, recruited Narayanan to the university. Nikias became president in 2010.

“One of my most enduring and heartfelt achievements while at USC Viterbi was to help recruit Shri,” Nikias said. “Seventeen years ago, one could not overestimate his towering intellect and creativity.”

Engineering a better world

Narayanan’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab uses engineering to make the world a better place — from helping therapists better evaluate patients to improving autism diagnoses in children.

Some of his most recent work has tackled gender bias. He and his lab teamed up with Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to develop a technology that uses signal processing to quickly identify the gender of actors on screen and compare the time that male and female characters talk on screen.

In analyzing 200 Hollywood movies from 2015, they found that women were on screen less than half as often as men and spoke less than half as much. And even when a woman was speaking, a man was often on screen. The team’s results were published late last year.

Narayanan has received numerous honors. A fellow of many professional societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he was named earlier this year to the National Academy of Inventors. Before his new endowed chair appointment, he was the Andrew J. Viterbi Professor of Engineering at USC.

An honor for the Nikiases

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos, who kicked off the installation event, spoke about how C. L. Max Nikias has transformed the university in his 25 years at USC, half of them at the engineering school.

He has shaped USC, Yortsos said, “through countless new buildings, creating a new culture of excellence and by advancing a compelling and irresistible vision for the university as an agent of progress and change in the world.

“The new chair, honoring Niki and Max’s transformative impact, will be their ‘academic residence in perpetuity,’ with its first tenant being Professor Narayanan.”

Narayanan spoke at the installation not about his work, but rather, about his home at USC.

“I still vividly remember the day Max and I walked back from lunch when I first visited USC. He put his arm around my shoulder and emphasized the importance of family,” Narayanan said. “Before joining USC, I had heard of the concept of the Trojan Family. After 17 years, I can certainly vouch for it. Niki and Max together have been a tremendous part of that for me.”