From St. Louis to Singapore to Texas: Justin Ruths

Alumnus Justin Ruths took his WashU Engineering education abroad to help establish a new program before returning to the U.S. to teach mechanical and systems engineering

Justin and Melissa Ruths
Justin and Melissa Ruths on their six-day horseback trek in Mongolia on which they rode through wilderness and helped to herd sheep.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics at Rice University, Justin Ruths was looking for something he could get his hands on. He found it in engineering and applied math at Washington University in St. Louis, and today, is giving back by teaching future engineers and conducting research at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD).

Ruths earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the School of Engineering & Applied Science at WashU in 2008 and a doctorate in systems science & applied math in 2011. As the first doctoral student in the lab of Jr-Shin Li, associate professor of electrical & systems engineering, Ruths became interested in control, which allowed him to apply his physics background to modeling and optimizing quantum spin dynamics and neuron behavior.

Ruths’ family lived in Indonesia for much of his childhood, so he and his wife, Melissa, were eager to live outside of the United States for a few years. After he finished his doctorate, the Ruthses moved to Singapore, where he became an assistant professor of engineering systems & design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the country’s fourth-largest public university, with collaboration ties to MIT and founded two years prior, while Melissa worked in Emerson Electric Co.’s Singapore office. The first class of SUTD undergraduates began in 2012, so Ruths was in on the ground floor of a new technology-focused university where he saw many growth opportunities, including in program and curriculum building as well as some administration.

“I was one of the first 20 faculty hired there, and there was a lot to do,” he said. “The nice thing about that kind of growth is that you can find many opportunities to get involved.”

While in Singapore, the Ruthses took advantage of the country’s location to travel, including taking a six-day horseback trek in Mongolia on which they rode through wilderness and helped to herd sheep.

Ready to return to the U.S., the couple — and their seven-week-old daughter — headed to Texas in 2016. Ruths joined the faculty at UTD, where he is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of systems engineering. He currently has two doctoral students and one master’s student in his lab.

“UTD is experiencing a large amount of growth, and it was an exciting opportunity for me,” he said. “The mechanical engineering department started in 2008, so it’s relatively young. There is a lot of energy here, especially in the area of control theory.”

Ruths’ research in control falls into three areas. He continues the work he did in Li’s lab designing inputs, working with applications in quantum control and in neuroscience. In addition, he studies large-scale systems as networks, including work published in Science in 2014.

“Recently there has been an interest in understanding network behavior. Once we can model a network and predict what it might do, then we can start to understand how to control it,” he said. “For example, when a person experiences an epileptic seizure, there’s a kind of pathological behavior in the oscillation of the activation occurring on the network of neurons in the brain. Our goal is to change that behavior — to drive the oscillation to some other behavior, effectively stopping the seizure.”

Ruths also seeks to understand the security of control systems, such as in industrial automation applications.

“Control processes are in charge of making sure things go smoothly,” he said. “The question of control has largely been about designing algorithms to make sure this still happens, even in context of random disturbances, noises and uncertainties, and even if we don’t model the systems completely correctly. Security raises altogether new challenges for control theory due to the adversarial nature of attacks.”

“Because of the typical size of an industrial system, such as a refinery, detection and response mechanisms need to be automated,” he said. “We build algorithms, supported by mathematical reasoning, to look for the signatures of attacks and make adjustments if we find them.”

Ruths presented his research results on industrial control systems March 1 at a WashU seminar.

While a doctoral student, Ruths had an interesting opportunity that gave him some hands-on teaching experience. As a National Science Foundation’s Graduate STEM Fellow in K-12 Education, Ruths had the opportunity to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in area middle and high schools during his first two years. He used the Lego Mindstorms kit to teach robotics, basics in control, cruise control and other methods.

“Having those two years was a really neat way to interface with students,” he said. “It also helped to connect me with the St. Louis area.”

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 98 tenured/tenure-track and 38 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.