Washington University's Yixin Chen receives prestigious Microsoft award

April 30, 2007

Yixin Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of just five new faculty nationwide to receive a New Faculty Fellowship from Microsoft Research.

The fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards for young computer scientists. Chen, who began his Washington University career in 2005, is the first Washington University researcher to be awarded the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship. It provides each recipient $200,000 in cash and other resources such as software and conference travel and the opportunity to engage in research with Microsoft personnel over two years.

The New Faculty Fellowship Program, now in its third year of operation and administered by Microsoft Research's External Research & Programs group as part of its mission to support and collaborate with the academic community, is designed to identify and assist exceptional first-, second-, and third-year professors who are advancing the state of the art of computer-science research.

Every university in the nation can nominate just one candidate. Microsoft selects 25 semi-finalists, from which a field of ten is chosen. Those ten are flown to Microsoft Research's Redmond, Wash. Campus, where they give a five-minute presentation in front of a mixed panel of famous computer scientists, three from Microsoft and three from academia. They then participate in a five-minute question-and-answer session. The panel chooses five.

Chen's research interest for which he won the Fellowship is the problem of nonlinear optimization. Solving it can bring many applications to automated planning, medical operations such as radiotherapy, computational biology and engineering design. For five years he worked on developing an algorithm that today can solve a nonlinear optimization problem that once took a 100-node parallel computer a week to solve in just 100 seconds.

Working with Washington University School of Medicine radiation oncologist Joseph O. Deasy, Ph.D., associate professor of radiation oncology, Chen is applying the algorithm to reduce the complexity of radiation therapy by letting multiple steps in procedures unfold rapidly and efficiently, minimizing tissue damage.

Similarly, Chen's technology can be applied to NASA software so that the decision procedures that rovers and satellites might do in two hours now could be executed in just 30 seconds.

"The goal of the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship is to promote the use of computing in all kinds of fields," Chen said. "This involves interdisciplinary collaborations.

"My work reveals that there are strong structures underlying the constraints in real-world problems and that, by exploiting such structures, many previously intractable problems can, in fact, be solved efficiently. The goal is that, by reducing the computational complexity of nonlinear optimization, we will develop fast and robust decision-making tools and significantly extend the ways that computing can be used in medical, scientific and engineering applications."

New faculty is the lifeblood of the computer science field, according to Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research.

"They (new faculty) bring a lot of the new ideas; they bring a lot of new excitement and new technologies into the field, Rashid said.

Microsoft Research recognizes, however, that until young professors can build a reputation, they typically struggle to secure adequate funding for their research work, hence the need to nurture outstanding young faculty members early in their careers.

"What we're trying to do," Rashid explained, "is make sure there's a really healthy ecosystem, that we've got great people going into the field of computer science, becoming professors, and then themselves producing great students that are going to keep the field going into the future."

Washington University in St. Louis

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