In Memoriam: Xinran Ji 1990–2014

“If you’re going through adversity, keep going.”


That was Xinran Ji’s way of solving problems, according to Jiaming Kong, a close friend from his undergraduate days at Zhejiang University in China.

Ji, a graduate student in electrical engineering, who tragically lost his life on July 24, is remembered by friends as “amiable, willing to help all the time” and possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of bikes, cars, trains and planes. He could name each model of Chinese railway engine from the oldest to the latest bullet trains. He was someone “always smiling, modest, positive and hardworking.”

But it was that last part that particularly stood out to Kong, who saw in his friend “a young star who had a passion about his work,” an engineer who showed “unremitting effort in putting pieces together and making them dance.”

Said Kong, “As an engineer at work, I know how often people will cut corners, hack things and leave a potential for instability risk in the future. Yet I found none of these in his portfolio.”

Even before entering the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in fall 2013, Ji had distinguished himself. His undergraduate research in the design and implementation of control systems for quad-rotor aircraft earned him a First-class Scholarship for Excellence in Research and Innovation from Zhejiang University in December 2012.

Before that, in 2006, Ji had been No. 1 in the High School Admission Competition in his hometown of Hohhot, an extremely competitive exam similar to the American SATs.    

Indeed, Ji’s love of building things told the tale of an evolving, gifted engineer. There was a simple and elegant feed forward controller model; a car that navigates itself by seeing in infrared; a clock that tells international time in a more human way; and finally a drone that can park itself, fly sideways and stabilize its aerial position automatically.

According to Danlei Chen, another close friend and fellow USC Viterbi master’s student in electrical engineering, Ji believed wholeheartedly in the Theodore von Karman quote: “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.”   

While fellow students traveled abroad and spoke of tourist attractions, Ji spoke of “automated production lines and advanced FANUC manipulators” during his 2011 exchange visit to UC Davis. Said Kong, “His eyes shined as if he was still marveling at those things.”

Yet Ji was also the model of the USC Viterbi engineer, one that in the words of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos “combines analytical and mathematical skills with creativity and synthesis: a balanced blend of left and right-brain skills.”

An avid photographer, Ji had served as senior press photographer of the QSC website, a student portal ranked among the top 100 student sites in China. He loved outdoor photography, perhaps owing to his home province in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, an area known for its epic grasslands and forests.

In the end, Ji often saw the world through his camera lens. And that world, lovely and imperfect, was one that he perhaps was uniquely qualified to make better.

To honor Ji’s memory, the Xinran Ji Memorial Scholarship will be awarded annually to a USC Viterbi graduate student from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau.

To donate, please contact Jane Ong at (213) 821-2921 or via email at