Yi Liu Moving Up in Software Design

UM doctoral graduate is becoming a legend in her field

Yi Liu

Yi Liu

Fourteen years ago, Yi Liu began her doctoral program in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Mississippi. Her research was in software engineering, particularly component-oriented programming.

After four years, she graduated and began working as an assistant professor at the South Dakota State University. Promoted to associate professor, she continues to conduct research and teach in software engineering.

Recently, Liu returned to UM as one of two Ph.D. alumni seminar speakers. Her topic was “EASTWeb Framework: A Plug-In Framework for Constructing Geospatial Health Applications.” While on campus, she met with several faculty members about shared interests and possible collaboration, and with a group of doctoral and master’s students.

“Dr. (H. Conrad) Cunningham was my dissertation advisor when I was pursuing my Ph.D. degree,” said Liu, who earned her master’s degree from Nanjing University, one of the top six institutions in the People’s Republic of China. “I took Software Engineering II, Component Software and Software Architecture from him. I also worked on research projects including the dissertation research under his supervision. The courses and the research built the foundations for my career after graduation.”

Before following her husband, who was already at UM as a doctoral student in chemistry, Liu taught a couple of years at Soochow University in her hometown of Suzhou, China.

Liu is fondly remembered by her Ole Miss computer science professors.

“In my 26 years on the faculty, she is the graduate student with whom I have most enjoyed working and who has benefited from my research program the most,” said Conrad Cunningham, chair emeritus and professor of computer and information science. “She is also a good friend. Of the Ph.D. graduates who have joined a CS faculty after graduation, she has probably been the most successful in terms of both teaching and research.”

Dawn Wilkins, chair and professor of computer and information science, served as one of Liu’s doctoral committee members.

“Dr. Liu is one of the most inventive doctoral students I have ever encountered,” Wilkins said. “Her ability to build upon the foundations of basic software design is impressive.”

Liu shares reciprocal memories of her professors.

“I took several graduate classes from Dr. Wilkins, including Machine Learning, Advanced Algorithms,” she said. “I liked her teaching style and enjoyed all of the classes I took from her.”

Honors and awards Liu received while at Ole Miss include the SAP Scholarship, summer graduate research assistantship, Academic Achievement Award in Ph.D. Program in Engineering Science and Graduate School Dissertation Fellowship.

“I have been a member of the computer science honor society Upsilon Pi Epsilon since 2002 and served as epsilon (secretary) for the UM Chapter,” Liu said. “The experience of being a member and officer of UPE helped me a lot to start a new UPE chapter and serve as the faculty adviser at South Dakota State University nine years later.”

Liu’s active research grants include the Epidemiological Applications of Spatial Technologies Framework, an open-source, client-based software developed to automate the retrieval, processing and storage of satellite remote sensing data for public health research and applications. She is a co-principal investigator in the development of an integrated system for the epidemiological application of earth observation technologies, including the EPIDEMIA system, Framework for developing Web-Atlas applications and semantic-based image retrieving system.

Liu has also created a crash-mapping automation tool software application, a remote sensing and precision agriculture application, intelligent software components, a new component-oriented software engineering course and BoxScript, a component-oriented language.

A prolific author, she has co-written six journal articles, a book chapter and 22 conference papers. Liu has served on the technical program committee for a workshop and two conferences and been a reviewer for conference papers and journals.

“The computer science program at UM may not have been big, but it had a decent teacher-graduate student ratio so that the graduate students were under good supervision,” Liu said. “I was working on the research topics I was interested in and enjoyed my study and research at the program.”

Passing on Her Passion

Dawn Blackledge makes her mark in industry; giving back to her alma mater

Dawn Blackledge

Dawn Blackledge

Thirty-three years ago, K. Dawn Blackledge was just another new University of Mississippi graduate looking for employment. Today, the geology and geological engineering alumna is the founder-CEO of the Blackledge Group and a major donor to her alma mater.

Blackledge has given $110,000 gift to Ole Miss, including $60,000 to endow a School of Engineering scholarship to help students in the geological engineering program offset tuition costs and promote participation in the Society of Women Engineers. An additional $50,000 donation to the Triplett Alumni Center is earmarked to sponsor a suite in the Inn at Ole Miss.

“I feel strongly that science and engineering should continue to flourish at Ole Miss, and I want to help deserving students pursue their passion of becoming an engineer,” said the Laurel native who resides in Jacksonville, Florida. “The GE program offers graduates so many opportunities and so many choices of industries for career opportunities.”

After earning her “dirty boots” in the Gulf Coast petroleum industry, Blackledge relocated to Jacksonville, where she entered public service with the city’s new Department of Environmental Resources. After 10 years of private and public experience, Blackledge founded Aerostar Environmental Services Inc., a full-service environmental engineering and remediation firm, in 1992. Under her leadership, the company grew to a business of more than 80 employees with 12 offices throughout eight states. She sold the company in 2012.

The Blackledge Group provides technical expertise to public and private clients in the areas of water resources, environmental compliance, energy and sustainability.

“I strongly believe that entrepreneurship provides the best opportunity to influence business philosophies and promote positive changes in policies and practices as the world continues to move at a lightning pace,” Blackledge said. “Also, women are still underrepresented in engineering. I feel it’s important to demonstrate that the engineering field can provide women with the opportunity to not only achieve their dreams but also the opportunity to create their own dreams.”

Blackledge said she grew up with a love for the university, where she was active in the Delta Delta Delta sorority.

“My best memories are the friends I made while at Ole Miss,” she said. “I lived in the Tri Delt house and had a blast attending football games and swaps, playing intramural sports and hanging out in the Grove.”

Blackledge joins the School of Engineering Advisory Board in 2016. Her generosity is noted and appreciated by faculty in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering.

“Dawn has been an exemplary alumnus, one who has excelled professionally and invested back into the program both financially and with her time,” said Gregg Davidson, chair and professor of geology and geological engineering. “The Blackledge Scholarship is one of the more coveted awards we make each year, and we are privileged to have her serving as a departmental representative on the school’s engineering advisory board.”

Blackledge is a well-respected environmental professional and business owner. She was appointed by the governor of Florida to the State of Florida Board of Professional Geologists in 2000 and served as board chairman during her second term, ending in 2007.

The UM grad also serves on the board of directors for the Society of American Military Engineers Jacksonville Post. She is an appointed member of the University of North Florida’s Dean Advisory Board, a graduate of Leadership Jacksonville, a founding associate of the First Coast Manufacturers Association and mentor to new women-owned businesses.

Blackledge is a certified construction quality manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Navy. At the state level, she is an expert at storm water permitting and has taught classes throughout the state.

A longtime runner, she is working on one her “bucket list” items. “When I was at Ole Miss, I ran from one end of the town to the other,” she said. “My new goal is to run at least one 10-K in every state. So far, I’ve run in 10 states.”

Blackledge said she will always continue to support Ole Miss engineering.

“I was so impressed with the changes on the campus that I wanted to be a part of the university’s continuing growth,” she said. “I am very proud of my alma mater and feel blessed to be a part of the Ole Miss tradition of ‘giving back.’ I hope many students will be able to be blessed as I have been blessed.”

From Music to Mechanical Engineer

Ole Miss drummer and entrepreneur lands job at BMW

Joseph Reed

Joseph Reed

A University of Mississippi drummer with the Pride of the South Marching Band has proven he’s both musically and mechanically-inclined by starting his own business and landing his first job as a student engineer.

Oxford native Joseph Reed, 21, is a senior studying mechanical engineering with a minor in music. Reed developed a love for music in high school as a member of the band’s percussion section for four years. For two of those years, he was percussion leader and in charge of teaching pieces to other drummers.

Reed said the strict order of rules within the band taught him honor, integrity and responsibility, and he became a perfectionist. That trait also helped Reed during his senior year of high school, when he took a wood and mechanics class and became interested in manufacturing and engineering.

“Through band, I learned how to discipline myself as a percussionist and as a person,” Reed said. “People I know today still say I show those characteristics.”

When building anything, Reed said there has to be a base or solid foundation to support the item as a whole. There is also a specific order one must follow to completion. Reed chose mechanical engineering with a minor in music as his foundation, and he became a member of UM’s Pride of The South Marching Band.

While playing with the band, Reed also decided to start his own business buying, manufacturing and selling new drums. Although business started slow, he managed to build a large clientele in Oxford for his small company, Reed’s Drum Products.

Thaddeus Moss, Reed’s friend and fraternity brother, helped to establish Reed’s Drum Products by finding a company in Memphis that would give them drum parts for a small price. Reed soon became well-known on the Ole Miss campus for his work.

“Reed is one of the hardest workers I know,” Moss said. “It was only right for me to lend him a helping hand. There was no doubt that his business would grow as fast as it did. I am actually one of his customers.”

Reed has also marched with Nashville’s Music City Drum & Bugle Corps and Ohio’s prestigious Bluecoats Drums and Bugle Corps. As the front ensemble section leader, he led the Bluecoats to a third place victory this summer out of 24 competing drum corps in the show “Kinetic Noise.” The Bluecoats competed in 34 shows this summer, including three performed in NFL stadiums and two that were broadcast live in hundreds of movie theaters.

Reed’s other love is mechanical engineering. He worked hard to maintain a 3.5 GPA and was offered a student job at the BMW manufacturing plant in Greenville, South Carolina.

“I thank God for all of my accomplishments,” Reed said. “There is no way but up from here on.”

Though he would have to return to college between the plant’s fall, spring and summer rotations, Reed took the job as a co-op student engineer. He works in the new model department of the BMW Paint Shop, where he prepares paint for new BMW models that will be produced at the South Carolina plant for 2016 and 2017.

If Reed learns to speak German before he graduates, he will be offered a fourth rotation at BMW’s head plant in Germany.

Cunningham Concludes Tenure as CIS Department Chair

Longtime professor passing baton, returning to teaching and research

Conrad Cunningham

Conrad Cunningham

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2001 was a time of trouble within the University of Mississippi’s Department of Computer and Information Science. At least that’s the way H. Conrad Cunningham remembers it.

“I became chair in what I describe as a triple crisis,” Cunningham said. “First, we had to move the department operations from Weir to Kinard for 18 months in order for Weir to be renovated. Second, we had to do our ABET/CAC self-study for the 2002 visit. And third, we lost two of our seven tenure-track faculty that summer.”

Rising to the occasion, the computer and information science professor-turned-chair pulled together the five remaining tenure-track faculty and one instructor to successfully extract themselves from this crisis over the next three years. He credits Kai-Fong Lee, then-dean of engineering, with providing advice that helped marshal the resources needed to rebuild the CIS department.

“I am never satisfied with the status quo,” Cunningham said. “As a faculty member and department chair, I have sought to help my department mature and increase its abilities to educate students, be productive researchers and stimulate the region to reach its potential.”

Cunningham has succeeded in doing just that. He served as department chair from Commencement in May 2001 until June 30, 2015, or more than 14 years.

“The best I can determine, I served in the role more than twice as long as any previous CIS department chair from the founding of the department in the mid-1970s,” he said. “My immediate predecessor, Dr. Robert P. Cook, served for nearly seven years, which is the second longest as far as he can determine.”

But Cunningham’s 26-year tenure is marked by achievement, not just longevity.

“During my period as chair, we increased our Ph.D. program and our funded research program,” he said. “We weathered the nationwide collapse in undergraduate enrollment after the Internet boom years before 2001 and increased the enrollment to the highest levels in probably 30 years.”

Cunningham hired all the current associate and assistant professors, added an eighth tenure-track line, a second instructor and received approval to hire a third instructor for fall 2017.

“I stepped aside from the chair role early this summer to refocus my efforts on my teaching, research and writing before I retire from the faculty in a few years,” Cunningham said. “I am currently working with several Ph.D. and M.S. students.”

​ As far as he knows, Cunningham is the first faculty member hired as a beginning assistant professor in CIS to reach the rank of professor. Dawn Wilkins, his successor, is the first female hired as an assistant professor to reach full professor rank.​

Cunningham joined the Ole Miss faculty in August 1989 after completing his master’s and doctoral degrees at Washington University in St. Louis. Raised on a farm near Success, Arkansas, he graduated from Corning High School and from Arkansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Having previously worked as a professional staff member for Washington University and for General Dynamics Corp., Cunningham and his wife, Diana, decided Ole Miss and Oxford were a delightful place to live and work.

“When I came here as an assistant professor, I was fortunate to be able to choose among opportunities at three similar institutions,” he said. “I was attracted to the culture and size of the Ole Miss computer science department – a faculty dedicated to teaching, a department small enough for the faculty to know the students well and opportunities to grow a research program with Ph.D. and M.S. students.”

A registered dietitian, Diana Cunningham has worked 26 years for the North Mississippi Regional Center. For the past five years, she has served as director of nutrition services.

Cunningham has earned the respect of engineering administrators, colleagues, alumni and students.

“Dr. Cunningham is largely responsible for my decision to accept employment at the University of Mississippi,” Wilkins said. “His dedication to the department, its faculty and its students is remarkable, and I am proud to call him not only my colleague but a trusted friend.”

“As my adviser, Dr. Cunningham not only guided me through my dissertation research with wisdom and patience and gave me considerable encouragement, but also impressed me with his dedication to the work and wonderful personality,” said Yi Liu, a 2005 doctoral graduate who is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at South Dakota State University. “He is my role model.”

The Cunninghams enjoy travel but have not had much time to for it in recent years. He also enjoys reading and activities at First Baptist Church in Oxford. A few months ago, the couple began walking regularly to improve and maintain their health.

While retirement is still a few years away, Cunningham said he is already making plans for his post-UM future.

“We likely will remain in Oxford,” he said. “We plan to devote more time to church activities, travel, visiting family and reading. I also plan to remain professionally active, devoting some time to consulting, research, writing, mentoring students and perhaps teaching.”