Professors Li and Nov Receive CAREER Awards

Hai (Helen) Li and Oded Nov are among the most promising young teachers and scholars in the U.S.—and to prove it, they have been awarded prestigious fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

The award is called CAREER: The Faculty Early Career Development Program, and it’s the leading fellowship the NSF offers in support of junior faculty who are expected to succeed notably in their fields. CAREERs, which can be earned only once, are offered for “outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.” According to the NSF, fewer than a tenth of the people who apply are awarded CAREER grants.

Over the next five years, Li, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will receive $450,000; Nov, an assistant professor of technology management will receive $500,000 to support his research.

Li, who hails from China, has been in the U.S. about 12 years and at NYU-Poly since 2009. Formerly at Qualcomm, Intel and Seagate, she says, “After working in industry for a period of time, I wanted to do independent research I really liked and believed in.”

Li’s grant will help with developing next-gen storage technology called magnetic random access memory (M-RAM) or more specifically, spin-transfer torque random access memory (STT-RAM). STT-RAM is designed both for personal devices like computers and phones as well as large-scale data centers and servers used by major corporations. They address an ongoing problem: the competing demands for more memory in smaller and faster gadgets. Li expects STT-RAM to replace on-chip caches, flash memories and hard drives within the next few years. Although she’s been working on it already for a few years, she says there’s still plenty to do. “I worked with my PhD student and found some interesting situations and proposed some novel methodologies,” she says. The grant will help her carry out deeper research.

Li’s work has already been recognized in industry and other institutions, and has won two best paper awards and three best paper award nominations. She supervises five PhD and seven or eight master’s students; the fellowship will enable her to hire another PhD student for her team. While there’s no guarantee, she points out, she expects to be able to get more good students and improve the quality of her research. “I have confidence in the future,” she says.

Oded Nov, Israeli by birth, has been at NYU-Poly for six years and received his CAREER Award from the NSF Human-Centered Computing program. His research interest lies in studying why people contribute to large-scale online community efforts, such as Wikipedia, open source software and citizen science projects. He uses social science to explore and better design the interactions of humans with computers. “I’m interested in understanding what drives different people, in order to improve the effectiveness of these large-scale projects,” he says. “Based entirely on millions of volunteers, Wikipedia is one of the largest collaborative effort the world has ever known. It’s the poster boy of online collaboration. If you compare the population that contributes to Wikipedia, it’s probably larger than any company in the world ever. And it’s all done through self-government and the efforts of volunteers.”

Theories on why individuals get involved depends on the project, he notes. “For Wikipedia,” he suggests, “people enjoy the process and share the ideology that information should be free. In open-source software, it’s a way for people to signal their capabilities and get a name for themselves in their community; so they are doing it for the consequences not just the thing itself. Citizen science involves projects where individuals contribute to science work through collection or analysis of data that requires a relatively low level of training. It is a way for people to feel that they are helping the greater good or a particular cause, and more generally, a way to connect with science.

“What’s interesting here,” he continues, “is that despite the fact that this is part of a growing trend of huge efforts built on volunteers, we know very little about the dynamics. It’s important to study and understand, and improve the design of socio-technical systems. By better understanding and through the use of large-scale experiments, we can enhance the recruitment and retention of volunteers, as well as make online community-based efforts more effective.”

The grant will enable Nov to hire students as additional research assistants. “We do the research anonymously through surveys and experiments in which people are presented with variations of ways to interact online, which are tailored to their interests and attributes,” he explains. “The more we understand participants’ interaction with the system they contribute to, the more the experience can be tailored to their needs and desires. My research will help make systems a better fit for what people are interested in and what people are.”