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Faculty Spotlight with Dr. Willie Harrison

Each week, we will be getting to know our faculty members a little bit better. This week, we will be getting to know Dr. Willie Harrison.

Willie Harrison

Secret secrets are no fun...but sometimes secret keeping can be. Dr. Harrison, who teaches Information Theory and Signals and Systems, works on a variety of research projects, including information theory, coding theory, digital communications, and sports analytics. One of his main focuses, however, is secret keeping. More formally known as wire-tap coding, secret keeping refers to exploiting information channels to stop the kind of information theft that we see in Robert Redford’s Sneakers, where people physically tap into wires to listen to information being transmitted.

This expertise led to one of his favorite research projects. Funded by the NSF, Dr. Harrison was able to lead a three-year Portugal-based project. While he maintained residency in Utah, he visited Portugal for a week every year during the project, and was able to send students to perform research over each full summer. The experiences for these students, he beamed, not only accelerated research but exposed the students to a whole other world; creating lifelong memories, increasing their diversity by exposing them to diversity, and getting them out of their comfort zone in a way that would set them up for lifelong learning.

When asked what the “one thing” would be if he could achieve, discover, or create one thing in his lifetime, Dr. Harrison explained that he has been researching how to find the best approach for wire-tap codingfor over a decade. While he has made lots of smaller discoveries during his research, there is still one big answer missing: a theorem or proof finding and proving the best way to code for secret keeping. The task is impossible without a theorem since on large sets of codes, the number of approaches is so large that you couldn’t go through them all even in an entire lifetime. “People think researchers don’t get very excited but it would be such an absolute adrenaline rush to find the answer after working towards it for ten years."


When he isn’t attempting to solve impossible problems, you can find Dr. Harrison rock climbing, golfing, coaching sports, and—as if you weren’t convinced of his cool factor enough already—training for American Ninja Warrior.