John Simpson-Porco

Researcher of the Month November: John Simpson-Porco

John W. Simpson-Porco is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UCSB, studying under advisor Professor Francesco Bullo. His research is centered around the stability and control of multi-agent systems and complex dynamic networks, focusing on modernized electric power grids. John earned his Bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario

Recently John won the Peter J. Frenkel Foundation Fellowship. This fellowship is awarded to a student who exhibits exceptional graduate research in energy and energy efficiency and who has advanced to doctoral candidacy. Advisor Francesco Bullo nominated John for his outstanding work on electric power system controls that help ensure network stability and efficient system performance.

John will be starting as an assistant professor in the ECE Department at the University of Waterloo in April, 2016.  Currently his goal is to develop an analytical theory of power system stability for on-line control use and optimization algorithms. He would like to collaborate with industry to refine this theory and make it more widely applicable.  In his free time, John enjoys playing the guitar, enjoying Santa Barbara’s eateries and nightlife, and playing basketball with his friend and colleagues. 


Hometown: Toronto, ON, Canada

B.S. Degree: Engineering Physics, Queen’s University

Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering (2015)

Important Awards and Honors: NSERC Doctoral Fellowship, CCDC Fellowship, Automatica Best Paper Prize, Frenkel Foundation Fellowship

Graduate Study Area: Control Systems

Main Area of Research: Electric power grid control

Advisor and Lab: Francesco Bullo

Research Interests: Power grid stability, distributed control, circuit theory

Professional Memberships: IEEE

Hobbies: Guitar, Baseball

Currently what are you working on?

I’m working on a few topics in power system control: voltage stability assessment, control of inverters for microgrid applications, and structure-preserving network reduction. Some one-paragraph research summaries are available on my website.

What is your education background?

My undergraduate was essentially in physics. I took one course on classical control and was hooked.

What are your long-term research goals?

Right now my target is to develop an analytical theory of power system stability, for use in on-line control and optimization algorithms. The goal of the theory is not to replace computation, but to formalize intuition and yield easily computable guarantees. This would be a complement to classical theories of grid stability which tend towards heavy computation and precision. In the future I also want to collaborate heavily with industry.

List some of your favorite publications.

In the area of power …

Van Cutsem - A Method to compute Reactive Power Margins with respect to voltage collapse

Hill and Chen - Power Systems as Dynamic Networks

Hiskens - Analysis Tools for Power Systems: Contending with Nonlinearities

In the area of control …

Byrnes, Isidori, and Willems -- Passivity, Feedback Equivalence, and the global stabilization of minimum phase systems

Kokotovic and Arcak -- Constructive nonlinear control: a historical perspective

Rotkowitz and Lall -- A characterization of convex problems in decentralized control

Tell us about your research.

My research at the moment is in electric power system control. One direction is the design of decentralized or distributed control strategies for renewable energy applications, where there will potentially be thousands or tens of thousands of devices in small-scale energy grids which need to be controlled to ensure network stability and good system performance. Another big interest of mine is in the theory of AC power flow, where I’ve been developing a set of results characterizing the solution set of the governing equations.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

When Francesco and I discussed possible PhD projects, I emphasized that I’d prefer working on something less algorithmic and more grounded in physics, so power grids were a natural fit.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research?

I applied to UCSB based on recommendations from professors at Queen’s, and once I visited I knew immediately I would accept.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

There’s a great blend of applied math and engineering, and the area is very hot at the moment with lots of publications being put out weekly.

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere, give some examples of how you collaborate

Francesco’s lab is a large open room, where all of his students would sit and socialize throughout the day. This led to a lot of good discussions and an atmosphere where you can always ask someone else for help.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

I think working with an older student in your respective group is a great idea. Every student/advisor pair is different, and it can take some time to find the right schedule of meetings.

Where will your research take you next?

For the next few months I’m a visitor at ETH Zurich in the Automatic Control Lab, and next April I’ll start as an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in the ECE department.

Life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life?

Balancing was never a big issue for me, I mostly just went with the flow of how I was feeling at any time. Sometimes forcing yourself to work can be counter-productive and it’s best to just back off for a few days and do something else.

What is your social life like and where have you lived?

I lived in graduate student housing for two years, which was a lot of fun and very social, but is a bit of a bubble. My last three years I lived in downtown Santa Barbara by Paseo Nuevo, which I would highly highly recommend due to proximity to restaurants and nightlife.