Li prepared for opportunities

June 5, 2006, volume 36, no. 3
By Barry Shell

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When two people work together to push a sofa from one room to another they unconsciously make numerous decisions.

For example, they do not push toward each other.

Qingguo (pronounced shing wah) Li's PhD thesis asks: what coordination mechanisms are required and how can they be mathematically modelled so that robots can execute such movements?

“Paths need to be planned, motions have to be optimized and energy use must be minimized,” says Li, one of the brightest doctoral students ever to graduate from the school of engineering science at SFU.

At the June 7 convocation ceremony, Li will receive a Governor General's gold medal, recognizing outstanding academic achievement.

Li took a long time to complete his degree, almost seven years, but he wrote 13 refereed papers during the period. His studies took longer than usual partly because he did six additional courses in applied mathematics as well as a math internship.

“I wanted to learn about different fields in applied mathematics, which would prepare me better for my research. It isn't the quickest way to graduate, but I needed the math to give me the confidence to model the problem. Otherwise, how would I dare attempt it?” says Li.

Li recently took a position as research engineer with kinesiology professors Andy Hoffer and Max Donelan who are creating a biomechanical energy harvester.

The device will capture the mechanical energy normally wasted during human movement and convert it into electrical energy, enough to power devices such as cell phones and laptop computers. There were 40 applicants for the role, but Li was chosen. 

He likes biomechanics for very practical and altruistic reasons. “It is very beneficial to our society. You do not just work with machines, but for people such as the disabled and the old and make a contribution to society,” he says.

Li enjoys life outside the research lab doing things that keep him balanced. He grows vegetables in a community garden plot and has won awards for his photography. He sees parallels between taking pictures and doing research.

He says, “You have to try and see things from a different angle and then find the best approach to taking the picture or tackling the research problem.”

Li acknowledges the contributions of other people to his work. “I could not have achieved all of this on my own. There are so many people who have helped, a whole page of people to thank,” he says, pointing to engineering science professors Shahram Payandeh and Mehrdad Saif  as well as mathematics professor Manfred Trummer as a few of his mentors.

Li has no long-range plan. Instead he likes to take little steps and perform day-to-day tasks the best he can. His advice to others:

“Be prepared well so that when opportunity comes, you can take it.”

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