Assistant Professor Paul Valiant of the Department of Computer Science has been named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in one of the oldest and most competitive fellowship programs in the country. He joins multiple Sloan Research Fellows in the Department, including recent winners Ben Raphael and Chad Jenkins. The fellowships are awarded to honor and promote the science of outstanding researchers early in their academic careers in physics, chemistry, ocean sciences, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, economics, mathematics, and neuroscience.
Selection procedures for the Sloan Research Fellowships are designed to identify individuals who show the most outstanding promise for fundamental contributions to new knowledge. For Paul, this takes the form of research at the interdisciplinary frontiers of what’s come to be known as the “Big Data” revolution. In contrast to the early years of computing, he explains, where processing speed was a severe limiting factor, we are now in an era where data is arguably the most powerful computational resource. Acquiring data is the one of the most expensive parts of science, and the potential contribution of computer science to these other scientific fields, from Paul's perspective, is through developing algorithms that make more efficient use of limited data. This has considerable ramifications for, as just one example, genome sequencing: if new algorithms let scientists make the same inferences from one million dollars of genome data for which previous "data-inefficient" computational techniques needed five million dollars of genome data, then these new algorithms might significantly improve the pace of scientific discovery.
“In general,” Paul says, “I’m led by my background in mathematics and physics to try and understand the intersection of computer science and other fields. How can we use the concepts and structures of information processing as broader investigative tools? For example, examining evolution as a computational process may help us understand the extraordinary reliability of biological mechanisms. I’m greatly interested in what computers can tell us about complicated problems in other sciences.”
Sloan Research Fellowships have been awarded since 1955, and past recipients have gone on to win more than 38 Nobel Prizes, 14 Fields Medals (mathematics), and eight John Bates Clark Awards (economics). They take the form of a $50,000 grant intended to be used over a two-year period. “I’m very grateful to receive a Sloan Research Fellowship at this point in my career and my research,” says Paul. “The grant will enable me to continue to focus on new ways of conceptualizing the challenges of data, across a broad swath of challenges from theory to practice.”