photo of spencer with his bike

Graduate Spotlight: Spencer Hutchinson – MS/PhD student in Controls

In Spencer’s own words – Interviewed during 2023 year

  • Hometown: Portland, OR
  • Previous Degrees: B.S. Electrical Engineering, Colorado School of Mines
  • Degree Sought from UCSB: 3rd year PhD student
  • Advisor / Group: Mahnoosh AlizadehSmart Infrastructure Systems Lab
  • ECE Research Area: Control Systems
  • Hobbies and Interests: Running, Hiking, Soccer, Swimming, Biking, Surfing

Spencer’s Research

  • Main Area of Research: Safe optimization and learning for human-cyber-physical systems
  • Important Conferences: IEEE Conference on Decision and Control, Cancun, Mexico (talk); Learning for Dynamics and Control, Philadelphia, PA (poster)
  • Important Awards & Honors: ECE Department Fellowship, ECE Outstanding Teaching Assistant, NSF GRFP Honorable Mention
  • Publications: Hutchinson's Google Scholar

Favorite things about

  • ECE Department: great classes, friendly and approachable students and faculty
  • UCSB: fun and tight-knit grad student community, great facilities, and beautiful location
  • Santa Barbara: weather, great opportunities for recreation in the ocean or in the mountains

Spencer and his research

Tell us about your research: I study the design and analysis of optimization algorithms that can satisfy uncertain constraints and how such algorithms can be applied to infrastructure systems (for example, electric grid and transportation). The application that I am most interested in is how we can use these algorithms to improve the efficiency and reliability of the electric grid.

How and why did you get into your area of research? During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to do research related to energy systems and optimization at both my undergrad university and an internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I enjoyed this work and felt that it would have a positive societal impact.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regard to your research? I came to UCSB to work with Prof. Alizadeh as her research group is one of the best for optimization and learning for human-cyber-physical systems. I was particularly interested in the fact that her group’s work spanned the theory of such optimization and learning techniques, as well as its applications to human-cyber-physical systems.

What do you find rewarding about your research? I find my research highly rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to be constantly learning and coming up with creative ideas, while also having a positive societal impact.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment: A research environment is often much less structured than other types of work environments. When I first started as a PhD student, I found it challenging to work in this type of environment because I didn’t know how to efficiently manage my time while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I have since come to appreciate the unstructured work environment because the flexibility allows me to work in a way in which I am both most productive and happy.

Academics at UCSB

Favorite course: My favorite course was Optimal Control/Dynamic Programming (ECE 271C) taught by Prof. Marden. I found the course to be engaging and challenging, and the material has been helpful for my research.

Describe your Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) and/or Teaching Assistant (TA) experiences: I have been a TA twice for ECE 10C (Circuits) and once for ECE 133 (Introduction to Optimization and Learning). For 10C, I helped grade homework and exams in addition to teaching a lab section. For 133, I graded homework and taught a discussion section.

Life as a graduate student

Quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life: My quality of life is very high because I enjoy nearly all aspects of it, whether it is my research work, spending time with my friends and family, or doing recreational activities (soccer, running, hiking, …). I think it is very important to deliberately allocate time to each of these aspects to maintain a happy, healthy, and productive life.

What is your social life like? I lived in graduate student housing my first two years and now live with some friends in a house in Goleta. Living in Santa Barbara has been great as there’s a lot to do and the weather is nearly always nice.

Tell us about your summer break: I have spent the past two summers doing research here, but have also taken time to visit family and travel for conferences.

Advice to prospective graduate students: One of the biggest lessons that I have learned as a grad student is the importance of being patient in research. When I first started, I just wanted to get after it, but I’ve learned that it is oftentimes better to be patient and let ideas develop instead of trying to pursue things prematurely.

Future Plans...

Where will your research take you next and what are your future career goals? I plan on pursuing a research position, although I’m unsure whether I’ll end up in industry, government, or academia.