Ten Columbia Engineering Professors Win NSF CAREER Awards

Mar 08 2019 | Agrawal, Jana, Weinstein Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers | Danino, Jacobs, Obermeyer photo credit: Jeffrey Schifman | Ray photo courtesy of Baishakhi Ray | Sun, Wang Photo Credit: Jane Nisselson | Wu Photo Credit: Michael Dames

Ten Columbia Engineering professors have won the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards this year. Their work, spanning a wide range of disciplines, carries extraordinary transformative potential: Shipra Agrawal is designing new frameworks and algorithms to account for consumer behavior in online purchasing; Tal Danino is using synthetic biology to detect, prevent, and treat disease; Josh Jacobs is uncovering how the human brain supports spatial navigation and memory; Suman Jana is laying the technical foundation for a new generation of tools and techniques to improve the security, reliability, and robustness of computer infrastructure; Steve Waiching Sun is creating a new augmented intelligence approach to improve predication of material failures; Allie Obermeyer is developing hybrid protein- and polymer-based materials for biomedical applications; Baishakhi Ray is devising novel software testing strategies to improve the reliability of deep-learning applications; Qi Wang is devising new ways to restore and enhance sensory functions and cognition through brain-machine interfaces; Omri Weinstein is exploring information theory and data structure to define a theoretical foundation for scaling up modern digital storage technology; and Eugene Wu is developing new tools for user-friendly data visualization. Their grants, each totaling $500,000 over five years, are among the most competitive given by the NSF.

“We are so pleased for our professors, whose pioneering research promises to bring innovations that will benefit humanity,” says Mary Boyce, Dean of Columbia Engineering. “They join a growing cadre of NSF CAREER award winners on our faculty, whose research is addressing a wide range of challenges from health and sustainability to connectivity. 

Shipra Agrawal, assistant professor of industrial engineering and
operations research

In a project with potentially far-reaching implications for online marketplaces and that promises to benefit both consumers and sellers through a more efficient matching of supply and demand, Shipra Agrawal, assistant professor of industrial engineering and operations research, will investigate new learning techniques for dynamic pricing, product recommendations, and allocation under three broad types of commonly occurring consumer behavior. In the categories of social influence and imitation, forward-looking and planning behavior, and consumer learning, she will develop new models and decision-making frameworks that can capture natural and uncertain consumer behavior, as well as learn from it. Ultimately, she aims not only to provide rigorous theoretical analysis, but also to test her theories and models by working with industry partners to evaluate performance in actual markets. (Read more about Agrawal’s research project.)


Tal Danino, assistant professor of biomedical engineering

Tal Danino, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who is also a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and of the Data Science Institute, designs new genetic circuits and microbial therapeutics that are inspired by native biological systems, and thus far has been focused on cancer. For his NSF project, he plans to engineer bacterial swarming that is controlled by novel gene circuits to generate macroscopic patterns, with the ultimate goal of creating a spatially encoded biosensor. His new project will extend his research into new diseases and health issues such as infection, gastrointestinal disorders, and pollutants that affect human health. (Read more about Danino’s research project.)


Joshua Jacobs, associate professor of biomedical engineering,

Joshua Jacobs, associate professor of biomedical engineering, has won a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award for his research on how the human brain supports spatial navigation and memory. Such understanding could shed light on how the brain supports various types of memory processes and perhaps lead to treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. As part of Jacobs’ project, “Characterizing mechanisms of navigation and memory using direct human brain recording and stimulation,” his group is directly recording brain activity from neurosurgical patients who have electrodes surgically implanted as part of treatment for their epilepsy. (Read more about Jacobs's research project.)

Suman Jana, assistant professor of computer science

Suman Jana, assistant professor of computer science, works on building secure and privacy-preserving software, with an emphasis on building automated tools for finding and fixing vulnerabilities in large, real-world systems. In his NSF-funded project, he will lay the technical foundation for a new generation of fuzzers that can leverage advanced continuous optimization techniques. Due to its simplicity and low performance overhead, fuzzing has become the de facto technique for finding software vulnerabilities, but popular fuzzers tend to get stuck trying redundant test inputs and struggle to find security vulnerabilities hidden deep within the program logic. Jana will explore these limitations and develop novel tools to enable fuzzers to exploit the power of continuous optimization techniques. (Read more about Jana’s research project.)

Allie Obermeyer, assistant professor of chemical engineering

In her research, Allie Obermeyer, assistant professor of chemical engineering, capitalizes on the diverse structure and function found in native proteins and engineers complementary functionality into new protein-based materials. Her lab makes genetic and synthetic modifications to gain responsive control of protein assembly and activity. In her NSF-funded project, Obermeyer intends to engineer proteins in order to artificially control their in vivo assembly to create phase separated compartments known as membrane-less organelles. This work will extend her efforts to develop new protein-based materials with a broad range of applications, ranging from drug delivery and protein purification to metabolic engineering. Her work ultimately will address challenges in protein engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology. (Read more about Obermeyer's research project.)


Baishakhi Ray, assistant professor of computer science

Baishakhi Ray, assistant professor of computer science, is primarily interested in software engineering research with a focus on improving reliability and security.  Her work addresses a paradigm shift in software development, where decision making is increasingly shifting from hand-coded program logic to deep learning as its core component.  With the wide scale adoption of deep-learning techniques comes concern about the safety and reliability of these systems, which have experienced a number of reported erroneous behaviors.  In her NSF-supported project, Ray aims to develop a technique to systematically test deep-learning-based applications, such as those used in autonomous cars, medical diagnosis, malware detection, and aircraft collision avoidance systems. The technique will also help core machine learning experts to evaluate their models in a systematic fashion.  (Read more about Ray’s research project.)

Steve Waiching Sun, assistant professor of civil engineering and
engineering mechanics

Steve Waiching Sun, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, is interested in making augmented intelligence better by emulating thought process of a scientist. He has invented a mathematical framework that incorporates mechanics principles, thermodynamic laws, graph theory and deep reinforcement learning to help scientists better predict material failures, such as fracture and fragmentation. He refers to this new approach as a “meta-modeling game,” because it involves simulating how a scientist thinks through establishing a material law, rather than devising computer programs to simulate the material responses for a variety of brittle and ductile materials. (Read more about Sun’s research project.)

Qi Wang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering 

Qi Wang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is seeking to create a hybrid computational-experimental framework that focuses on using vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) to enhance behavioral performance with minimal side effects and to enhance human perception, cognition, and behavioral performance using neural stimulation. Perception, cognition, and behavioral performance depend heavily on arousal level. As the primary source of norepinephrine (NE), the locus coeruleus (LC) plays a pivotal role in modulating brain functions through its regulation of arousal levels. Scientists think that decreased NE levels may underlie many neuropsychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, but due to its small size and location deep within the brainstem, the LC has been difficult to access safely and to manipulate its activity. Wang’s NSF project aims to use peripheral neural stimulation to control arousal levels to achieve optimal behavioral performance with minimal side effects by using the VNS as a safe alternative to control LC activity. (Read more about Wang’s research project.)


Omri Weinstein, assistant professor of computer science

Omri Weinstein, assistant professor of computer science, is interested in the interplay between information theory and data structures, and more broadly in applications of information theory to computational complexity and interactive computation. In his NSF-supported research, Weinstein aims  to develop new techniques for better analyzing the operational time of static and dynamic data structures, and along the way, to discover new connections between data structures and other areas of complexity theory and mathematics (e.g., streaming, algebraic geometry, codes, and circuit lower bounds). His new paradigm of “locally-decodable data compression" lays down the theoretical foundation for scaling up modern digital storage technology. (Read more about Weinstein’s research project.)

Since 2015, 23 Columbia Engineering faculty members have been honored with the NSF CAREER award.


Eugene Wu, assistant professor of computer science

Eugene Wu, assistant professor of computer science, has won a National Science CAREER Award for his research proposal, “Visual Database Interfaces (VDI).” The award will support Wu’s development of new tools for user-friendly data visualization, including scalable techniques to generate visual database interfaces tailored to specific analysis tasks. Wu’s vision for VDIs involves the development of two novel systems. The first system scalably extracts analyses from historical or live query logs and automatically generates interactive interfaces that are customized to each analysis. The second is a human-in-the-loop interface design tool that enables designers to improve the interaction design of VDIs while knowing which optimizations and systems modifications are needed to ensure that interactions remain responsive. (Read more about Wu's research project.)

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