The researchers are among 126 outstanding early-career researchers honored for creativity, innovation and leadership potential
A trio of Rutgers professors selected to receive a 2023 Sloan Research Fellowship are studying the best ways to extract meaning from massive datasets, the mechanisms that drive how volcanoes perturb Earth’s climate and the abstract mathematical ideas that underlie sudden changes in complex systems.
The Fellowships, awarded since 1955, are among the most prestigious awards bestowed upon early-career researchers in science and often predict future achievement. Some 57 Fellows have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes in a range of fields.
“These outstanding researchers testify to Rutgers-New Brunswick’s status as an institution of excellence in scholarship, education, and service - a place where the best and brightest faculty can explore bold new ideas that address society’s grand challenges,” Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway said.
The awards honor extraordinary creativity, innovation and the potential to become a scientific leader in chemistry, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics. Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 Fellowship that can be used flexibly to advance research.
Sepehr Assadi, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the School of Arts and Sciences, is a theoretical computer scientist working on creating algorithms capable of processing vast amounts of data that will make modern computers better at retrieving useful information.
Assadi, who published his first computer science paper when he was a college student, is focused on finding ways to best extract meaningful information from portions of databases, especially when the full set of information is not available.
“I realized early on that I really like thinking about computers,” Assadi said. He hasn’t stopped.
To theoretical computer scientists, symbolic objects they refer to as graphs – arrays of central nodes and lines connecting them – represent relations between pairs of physical entities, such as interconnected highways or human beings texting each other in a social network. Employing applications and equations from discrete mathematics, researchers like Assadi use the interconnectedness of individual nodes in a graph as a shortcut through large data sets.
Besides improving on ways to sort through massive data sets, Assadi is working to develop algorithms that can make maximum use of available information that can’t be collected with the decades-old algorithms guiding computers today.
Assadi fell in love with computer programming in middle school in his native Iran, where his mother and father were university professors.
As an undergraduate student at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, he was drawn to researching theoretical problems when he and some fellow students met a challenge from a professor and the results were published in a respected journal.
He earned his doctoral degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania and joined the Rutgers faculty in 2019 after completing his postdoctoral studies at Princeton University. Now, with the Sloan funding, Assadi plans to support his students further, providing opportunities for both international travel and remote collaborations.
As a boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Benjamin Black would often go on hikes with his family near an ancient, eroded volcano, stopping to study the details of the terrain.
Back then, he remembers being much more interested in the wildlife than in the volcanic bedrock. “It’s easy to think that rocks are just sitting there, not changing, not as exciting as plants or animals,” Black recounted.
“That’s totally wrong,” said Black, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences. “There are so many aspects of life shaped by geologic processes and so many stories that only rocks can tell.”
Black now studies rocks, volcanoes, climate and planets, researching intersecting parts of science. His research on how volcanoes influenced the ancient Earth’s atmosphere – helping to drive epochs of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and warm global climate – are providing insight into climate change today.
As a college student at Harvard University, Black had his first experience doing research, but it wasn't until after graduation – and before earning his doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and conducting postdoctoral work at the University of California-Berkeley – that he knew he had found his calling.
In that interim, as a Fulbright scholar in Iceland, Black was galvanized by the island’s vast lava fields and glaciers, and the sense that the landscape was changing on very human timescales.
“That was pretty much it,” he said. “I knew I wanted to ask questions and go out into the world and make observations that help you answer those questions.”
He plans to use the Sloan funding to explore new ideas with his group.
Bhargav Narayanan, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences, believes math is a beautiful subject.
“For me, that notion stems from wondering about something, a puzzle, a basic problem we don’t understand,” said Narayanan. “ I'll say, ‘Ah, that’s interesting to me. Let me think about that!’”
Narayanan’s research interests focus on the intersection of two areas of mathematics – combinatorics, the mathematics of counting and arranging, and probability, the theory of randomness.
“At a very high level, I’m trying to understand the behavior of random processes,” Narayanan said. “If you toss a lot of coins, what comes out – heads or tails – is technically a random process. But, in many interesting processes, when there are enough coin tosses involved, you can predict with a high degree of certainty what will come out.”
Such outcomes may not look random, he said, even though they still are, and these ideas have applications in computer science and statistical aspects of physics.
Narayanan has been receiving attention for his work on the theory and application of threshold behavior. He wants to understand systems that continuously shift randomly in order to determine the tipping points that often lead to irreversible changes in these systems, with examples from the climate to financial markets.
Narayanan studied computer science in his native India as an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and earned his doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of Cambridge.
“The fellowship will help me, and my group members, travel and foster more mathematical collaborations around the world,” he said. “I am excited to see what we can accomplish.”