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Brown University’s Department of Computer Science has exceeded its own record for the largest number of Seed Awards in a single year, with six faculty members sharing five awards in 2014. Ugur Cetintemel, Sorin Istrail, Chad Jenkins, Tim Kraska, Michael Littman, and Ben Raphael received the awards from Brown University’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) to help them compete more successfully for large-scale, interdisciplinary, multi-investigator grants.

The five projects receiving awards are:

  • "Creating a Providence-Based Working Group inPrecision Medicine to Identify the Genetic Determinants of MarijuanaSensitivity” (Fairbrother, Knopik, McGeary, and Raphael)
  • "Enabling Autonomous Flight of Drones in Complex,Unpredictable Environments” (Bahar, Reda, Kellner, and Jenkins)
  • "Genome-wide sequence analysis in severe autism andintellectual disability” (Morrow and Istrail)
  • "Robot Telepresence in Improved Nursing HomeOrganization” (Jenkins, Littman, Besdine, and Wetle)
  • "Scaling Evidence-Based Medicine via Automation andCrowdsourcing” (Wallace, Trikalinos, Kraska, and Cetintemel)

The amount of expected funding varies, but ranges as high as $100,000 per project.  The six professors join multiple previous BrownCS recipients of OVPR Seed Awards, including (most recently) Sorin Istrail, Andries van Dam, and David Laidlaw.

Reached for comment, Michael Littman highlights the intention of the awards to support integrated collaboration among a team of researchers.  He says, “I’m really excited to have my first joint project with faculty at Brown. Chad and I see tremendous potential in collaborating with our colleagues in Public Health and see this project as a great opportunity to explore our complementary strengths.” 

Ben Raphael feels similarly. “Our project is truly interdisciplinary,” he notes. “It brings together researchers on the Brown campus and in Brown-affiliated hospitals. We’re grateful to the OVPR for supporting our nascent collaboration in precision medicine and providing resources to generate the experimental data and computational analyses that will be the foundation for a future grant proposal.”

In all cases above, the research represents a collaboration with at least one colleague from another department. As just one example, Ugur Cetintemel and Tim Kraska’s project is a joint effort with Thomas Trikalinos and Byron Wallace at the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. “Evidence-based approaches to medicine are increasingly used to inform clinical practice,” explains Ugur, “but a ‘human bottleneck’ makes them very costly to produce because of the significant expert labor required to collect, review, and summarize the relevant information in the literature.” 

“Imagine that a loved one were suffering from breast cancer,” adds Tim. “The relevant publications number in the thousands, and even if you had the resources to hire a full-time doctor to research the disease, you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not uncover all the state of the art research.”

“Working closely with our collaborators from the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine,” says Ugur, “we’ll be bringing techniques from crowdsourcing, data management, and machine learning to bear on this challenging problem in new ways, as we try to automate and scale evidence-based solutions so they’re cheaper to conduct and can be more widely adopted and used.” 

In some cases, the partnership between interdepartmental colleagues is already longstanding. “This award,” says Sorin Istrail, “supports a three-years-long research collaboration that I’ve been enjoying with a colleague from Brown Medical School. Although I’m formally Eric Morrow’s computational genomics mentor, I find myself much more a ‘mentee’ in our work together. Eric’s research in human genetics and his autism medical practice have been an exciting source of learning and research inspiration for me. Our collaboration has inspired a number of new directions for algorithms with wider applicability in the search for missing heritability for the genetic determinants of autism, a disease with a notoriously complex genetic heterogeneity.”

True to their name, the Seed Awards are intended to reward research with significant potential impact in a field. “It’s exciting,” says Tim Kraska. “These awards are what will enable us to get started and to move ahead. Each of them is an entirely new beginning.” This year’s winners are poised to demonstrate the tremendously wide-ranging applicability of computational methods, from improving health and quality of life to extending humanity’s reach into the world around us. 

“As computational methods are becoming pervasive in science and engineering,” offers Department Chair Roberto Tamassia, “working with computer scientists is essential for the competitiveness of interdisciplinary research teams. These five projects receiving seed funding are an excellent example of the transformative impact of computing.”