Junior faculty awards recognize outstanding teaching and research

By The Office of Engineering Communications
June 02, 2020

The School of Engineering and Applied Science is honoring six assistant professors for early-career excellence in research and teaching. This year’s junior faculty award recipients will each receive $50,000 to support their research.

E. Lawrence Keyes, Jr./Emerson Electric Co. Faculty Advancement Award

Portrait of researcher

Jia Deng

An assistant professor of computer science, Deng works in the field of computer vision, with the goal of achieving human-level visual understanding by integrating perception, cognition and learning. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2012, and is well-known for his graduate research on ImageNet, the labeled dataset of more than 14 million images that, in the words of computer science department chair Jennifer Rexford, “spawned the deep-learning revolution.” Now, going beyond recognizing objects in two-dimensional images, Deng investigates how to understand actions and how to recover three-dimensional representations in the wild. He has created new benchmarks for classifying and detecting human-object interactions from images, and developed methods to analyze poses of the human body. The award will enable Deng’s research group to build on this work by ensuring access to the computing resources necessary to design machine learning algorithms using massive amounts of data.

Portrait of researcher

Jeffrey Thompson

An assistant professor of electrical engineering, Thompson focuses on physics and device applications at the intersection of quantum optics and quantum information. His research uses optical circuits to isolate and manipulate individual atoms in crystals. These atoms may be used as quantum bits, the fundamental building blocks of quantum communication and computing devices. In a nomination letter for the award, electrical engineering chair Sharad Malik cited Thompson’s strength in research and his “superlative” record in teaching the department’s required capstone design course, known as Car Lab. Malik called Thompson “a sought-after research mentor by undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs.” Thompson will use funding from the award to support a postdoctoral fellow who will help develop novel devices and materials for quantum computing and communications.

Alfred Rheinstein Award

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Anirudha Majumdar

An assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Majumdar leads the Intelligent Robot Motion Lab. The group’s research focuses on enabling highly agile robots such as unmanned aerial vehicles to operate with guaranteed safety and performance in complex environments. Funds from the award will support research in the area of safe and robust learning-based control of robots. Majumdar's primary focus for this work will be on developing approaches for learning control policies that provably generalize well to novel environments. Majumdar’s teaching and mentoring is enabling his department to meet “the incredible excitement and appetite for robotics from our undergraduate students,” wrote MAE chair Howard Stone, citing Majumdar’s successful and innovative redesign of the department’s introductory robotics course.

Howard B. Wentz Award

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Ian Bourg

An assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute, Bourg studies chemical interactions in soils, sediments and rocks. His expertise is in theoretical models and computational descriptions of the properties of liquid water near interfaces. He uses molecular dynamics simulators to study “interfacial water,” which he defines as the several million molecules of water in the vicinity of a solid surface. By studying these systems, Bourg gains insights that are difficult or impossible to observe in the laboratory. Among other questions, his work will address the controlling mechanisms for stable storage of carbon in soils, a critical environmental issue. “Soil carbon storage is a potentially important sink for atmospheric greenhouse gases,” wrote department chair Catherine Peters. “Ian has identified a novel strategy to investigate why some soils take up large amounts of carbon while others don’t.”

Portrait of researcher

Zachary Kincaid

An assistant professor of computer science, Kincaid aims to help software developers create reliable and secure software by providing them with tools to verify correctness properties of their code and identify bugs and security vulnerabilities. Since decision problems concerning program behavior are unsolvable in the general case, state-of-the-art program analyzers rely upon techniques that work well in practice, but can be unpredictable and difficult to use. Kincaid is interested in designing program analysis tools whose behavior can be understood and altered by software developers. Department chair Rexford noted that Kincaid routinely publishes several papers a year at “highly competitive conferences where averaging even one paper per year would be a strong publication record for a faculty member.” He will use the award funds to support graduate students participating in research on verification of distributed systems, robust and compositional program analysis, and analysis of resource bounds.

Portrait of researcher

Miklos Racz

An assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, Racz studies the dynamics of large networks in realms including biology, economics and social media. The availability of large amounts of data and advances in computing power mean that mathematical models of such networks as random graphs can now be meaningfully data-driven. A recent thrust of Racz’s research centers on fundamental inference questions concerning correlated networks. In nominating him for the award, department chair Ronnie Sircar highlighted Racz’s wide-ranging work on DNA data storage, the spread of misinformation and the potential manipulation of elections. “Miki’s work in these different areas (which involve very different mathematics) provides remarkably timely new insights into fundamental weaknesses of our democratic system and information consumption in this interconnected age,” wrote Sircar.