A Steady Hand

Tamer Başar in the Director's office at the Beckman Institute
Tamer Başar in the Director's office at the Beckman Institute

Beckman Institute Interim Director Tamer Başar has served during some of the Institute’s most historic, and most trying, times. As Art Kramer prepares to take over as the new Director, Başar can look back on a tenure at Beckman that saw numerous accomplishments.

Başar Leads Beckman through Extraordinary Time

Perhaps there should be a new word created to describe Tamer Başar’s tenure at the Beckman Institute – something between interim and permanent that accurately conveys what has taken place during Başar’s 20-month stint as Beckman’s Interim Director.

After taking over for Pierre Wiltzius in September of 2008, Başar has guided the Institute during some of its most historic and most challenging times. The Beckman Institute’s 20th Anniversary Year was held in 2009, with a celebration of the official opening in April and a scientific symposium in October marking the occasion. The biennial Beckman Institute Open House was held in March of 2009, while a planned facilities swap of Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory and Biomedical Imaging Center took place over more than a year-long process during Başar’s tenure.

In addition, a long-planned fourth research theme, Integrative Imaging was added, as were two Strategic Initiatives – Imaging and Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy – as well as a Developing Initiative called Healthy Bodies, Brains, Minds, and Communities. A  Development Office was created at Beckman, as was a new mentoring program for graduate and postdoctoral students. Başar’s term has also seen the onset of a very serious fiscal crisis at the University of Illinois. All of these, as well as several other happenings, made for a demanding tenure for any director, interim or not.

Coming to Beckman from appointments in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Coordinated Science Laboratory, Başar knew his position at the Institute was more than what the title of Interim Director would suggest.

“Here at the university right now most administrators are in interim positions so you really cannot act like an interim,” Başar said. “You’re there realizing that you’ll be making decisions that will have long-term impact on the institution. Otherwise, because there are so many things that are time sensitive and entail investment for the future that if you think only in the short term it would not be in the best interests of the institution. In this position, I have tried to make decisions without the constraints of the length of my term, even though I knew that my commitment was only for the interim.”

With the recent selection of Art Kramer as the new Beckman Institute Director, Başar’s tenure will soon be coming to a close. But his service will be remembered by many because, among other accomplishments, all of the events, new developments, and moves were judged extremely successful. One of those who shares that opinion is Robert A. Easter, Interim Chancellor and Provost at Illinois.

“We are deeply indebted to Dr. Tamer Başar for his service as Interim Director of the Beckman Institute,” Easter said. “During his tenure a fourth theme was added to the Institute’s portfolio, the 20th anniversary of the founding was celebrated, and the financial viability of operation was sustained through a period of serious budget challenges. On a personal level, I very much appreciated the opportunity to work closely with this visionary leader.”

For his part, Başar has also been very happy with what has transpired over the past 20 months, even if some of the issues he faced were extremely challenging.

“I was very pleased with the 20th Anniversary events,” Başar said. “The April event was wonderful and brought together those who knew the history of the Beckman Institute and played an important role in its founding, including our current President, Stan Ikenberry. Then we had the Symposium in October, and again we brought back to town some of the alumni and friends of the Institute and renowned scientists.”

Başar mentioned the creation of a new development office at Beckman as one of the accomplishments he is proud of as Director.

“We had several activities in connection with that: an alumni and friends meeting in New York City in November and another one in January in Irvine, California,” he said. “Those are additional activities that normally directors in the past were not engaged in.”

Başar also looked within, to Beckman faculty members, for their input in a number of areas.

“For the first time in the history of the Beckman Institute we had a (faculty) retreat in January of 2009,” Başar said. “It was an important and a very useful meeting, because this was the first time the faculty came together for brainstorming as to what the future should look like. We took several ideas from that meeting and in fact already implemented them last year.”

One of the ideas being implemented is the Healthy Bodies, Brains, Minds, and Communities Developing Initiative. Başar brought together small faculty groups to contribute to a white paper for the initiative, which can be found on their website.

Another initiative coming out of the retreat was a program involving Beckman faculty members mentoring postdocs and graduate students for academic positions in order, Başar said, to “maximize the opportunities that will be open to them for faculty positions, either once they receive their degrees or at the conclusion of their time here as postdocs. We have already had two mentoring workshops, one in November and another one just recently, beginning of April. I was very pleased with the attendance at and the level of interest shown to both events.”

In this position, I have tried to make decisions without the constraints of the length of my term, even though I knew that my commitment was only for the interim. – Tamer Başar, Interim Director, Beckman Institute

An important milestone that occurred during Başar’s tenure was the implementation of a fourth research theme, Integrative Imaging. The first new research theme in 15 years, Integrative Imaging had been in the planning stages when Başar arrived, and has already been a success with 22 faculty members on board. In addition, Başar oversaw the creation of two new campus-wide strategic initiatives located in Beckman: Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy, and Imaging. He also oversaw the completion of the Arnold O. Beckman Rotunda Exhibit, located in the main campus entrance to the building, which was unveiled just recently, on April 14, 2010.

Major planning was required for the facilities swap which, Başar said, “went very smoothly.

“I must give credit to all those who were involved, especially the operations people, which Mike Smith orchestrated,” he added. “We acquired the new 3T whole-body MRI system in July 2009, and it is functioning now extremely well in its home in the basement of the Institute. The CAVETM, Cube, and Driving Simulator have all been moved to the southern facility, renamed as the Illinois Simulator Laboratory, and are also functioning very well in their new homes.”

Even while serving as Director, Başar has continued to teach and keep his other ties to organizations, on and off campus. Başar is a Swanlund Endowed Chair Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois, with appointments at the Center for Advanced Study, the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and the Information Trust Institute. He joined the Illinois faculty in 1981 and while he has cut back somewhat on his teaching duties, Başar has continued to teach one graduate level class in each of the past two fall semesters.

Başar’s awards have been many over the years. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and has been recognized with numerous awards and honors: the Medal of Science of Turkey in 1993; the Giorgio Quazza Medal in 2005, given every three years to a distinguished control engineer by the International Federation of Automatic Control; and the Hendrick W. Bode Lecture Prize, the top prize of the IEEE Control Systems Society given to recognize distinguished contributions to control systems science or engineering. He also serves as President of the American Automatic Control Council and had won in 2006 their highest award, the Richard Bellman Control Heritage Award.  

In addition, Başar has co-authored more than 200 journal articles and served as editor for several publications, including continuing to serve as editor-in-chief of a major journal in control theory, Automatica, during his time as Interim Director. He co-authored a seminal book on game theory called Dynamic Non-cooperative Game Theory that has gone through four editions after first being published in 1982. He also wrote another field-defining book on control of systems under worst case scenarios titled H-infinity Optimal Control and Related Minimax Design Problems. He has just completed another book, titled Network Security, to be published by Cambridge University Press at the end of the year, co-authored with one of his former students.

Başar earned a Ph.D. in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Yale after earning an undergraduate degree from what is now known as Bogaziçi University in his native city, Istanbul. Science is not just in Başar’s life, it also is part of his family circle: his mother was a chemical engineer, his wife, Tangül Başar, is an electrical engineer and lecturer in ECE, and their two daughters are both engineers.

“So it runs in the family,” Başar said. “Hopefully to grandchildren.”

Başar has continued to work on his research areas during his stint as Director. His research includes areas such as game theory (a discipline which captures and studies the interactions of multiple decision-makers where the decision of one affects the performance of the others), control theory (an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and mathematics that studies the behavior of dynamical systems and how that behavior can be changed in a desirable way), and security in communication and computer networks. Başar said he has been able to continue doing research and supervise students’s research even while serving as Beckman Director. 

“You are essentially wearing two hats, so you take off one hat and jump back onto the boat that you were on,” Başar said. “You have to juggle between those two, without compromising on either.”

One of Başar’s fundamental research interests involves game theory. He said he uses a game theory framework to address problems in information security, communication security and intrusion detection, as well as resource allocation.

“Game theory has direct applications to security problems,” Başar said. “We see game theory as a discipline that studies the interactions of multiple agents whose decisions are intercoupled, with what one does affecting the others.”

“In order to make systems secure and trustworthy you have to make them as closed as possible to intrusion,” he added. “But then that creates an inconvenience to the individual user and leads to inefficiency. So how can one develop secure systems without bringing in inconvenience to the user? Our goal is to build systems that are as open and accessible as possible while at the same time being as secure as possible. In our work we bring in the new dimension of strategic thinking to these problems, which enables us to anticipate the worst the intruder can do within its capabilities, and here is where game theory framework comes in handy.”

Başar said game theory also has applications in economics, worst-case designs in engineering, in biology, and in communication networks where multiple users are using the same link or links, and have to share the available bandwidth.

“For example, if they don’t cooperate in sharing the bandwidth, then that could lead to inefficient use of the resources,” he said. “The question is how should different players – that is what we call decision makers in the context of game theory – how they should learn from each other’s actions, so that induced cooperation leads to efficient use of the existing resource. Thus nothing is wasted and users benefit from it.”

Başar’s work in game theory might have relevance to the issues facing the University – and the next Beckman Director – when it comes to the budget.

“I think the biggest challenge, which is on the minds of everyone, is the state budget, state dollars,” Başar said. “The Beckman Institute relies on that partially. Even though there are considerable amounts raised through research grants, there is still a reliance on the state budget that is crucial for the Beckman Institute.

“As we see dwindling resources on the state side, that is a challenge we face. If you want to sustain the same level of activity and operations at the Beckman Institute, then what is going to be lost as far as the state budget goes will have to be made up in other ways.”

Başar said more grant applications, especially for center grants, and development efforts are going to be needed. But he also sees many positives for Beckman’s new director.

“There are 40 plus departments represented here. It is a small model of what goes on at Illinois, some of the best on campus is represented here,” Başar said. “It is rewarding for everyone at the Institute to be in the thick of interdisciplinary research, and to be exposed to all these different areas that are at the forefront of science, both engineering and physical and life sciences, and the social sciences. That is something which is really eye-opening for anyone who is not used to that type of diversity.

“But everything also hangs together because by bringing people with different backgrounds and interests together, you are creating something that you would not be able to create within the confines of individual disciplines.”

As for advice for the new Beckman Institute Director, Başar says any new directions should be “bottom up and not top down.

“I think the best way the Institute has worked in the past and continues to work is by bringing in and collecting ideas and suggestions from the faculty, and then seeing what the best directions are in which the Institute could move, rather than making a unilateral decision on what should be concentrated on and imposing it on the faculty. Of course in this process, there should also be some dialog with other entities on campus, with input received from them as part of an inclusive process.”

After he steps down, Başar will return to his teaching and research duties full-time and to his office at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

“I will spend most of my time there, only a step away from here, but I will always be a friend of the Beckman Institute,” he said.