Three NYU assistant professors received prestigious awards from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, granting them $75,000 for research endeavors across a span of two years.
Tandon School of Engineering professor Anna Choromanska, Center for Neural Science professor Christine Constantinople and Courant Institute of Mathematical Science professor Daniele Panozzo are among 126 others named Sloan Research Fellows across the U.S and Canada in 2020. The awards are distributed annually, every February.
Recipients of Sloan awards are generally non-tenured researchers early in their careers — but several years past doctorate completion — in one of eight fields related to education, science and economics, according to the foundation’s website.
“The Foundation believes that these fields—and the scholars and practitioners who work in them—are chief drivers of the nation’s health and prosperity,” the organization’s mission statement reads. “The Foundation also believes that a reasoned, systematic understanding of the forces of nature and society, when applied inventively and wisely, can lead to a better world for all.”
To receive a fellowship, researchers must first be nominated via a senior department member or researcher of the nominee’s respective field. Only one to three grant nominations are allowed per department. Recipients are chosen based on their creativity, research advancement and potential within the scientific community, the website states.
Founded in 1934 as a New York City-based non-profit, it bears the name of its founder, the former CEO of General Motors Alfred Pritchard Sloan. The fellowship program itself was initiated in 1955 and since its founding, has produced 50 Nobel Prize winners and 69 National Medals of Science.
Panozzo’s research at Courant — where he has been for the last four years — involves developing algorithms and tools to better form geometric designs.
“My research has been in computer graphics, which historically is a discipline that works on figuring out how to realize tools for modeling geometry and rendering geometry how to convert a mathematical representation of the world into images,” Panozzo said.
Panozzo said his technology could help people more easily design essential structures, such as tables or even airplane wings by allowing them to create digital simulations of the objects to test how they would behave if built in the material world.
“That was historically used for movies and games, but as the field proceeds, it turns out that many of the problems that we were facing were really on ‘How do you acquire geometry in the real world?’ ‘How do you process it?’” Panozzo said. “You can think of it as sort of like managing the life of a shape, that goes from like a physical object to some other variant.”
He said that a key component of this investigation involved the use of partial differential equations used to simulate physical phenomena.
“These kinds of simulations have been used for a long time, Boeing has been using simulations for their design of airplanes for decades,” Panozzo said. “Right now the situation is that these kinds of tools require a lot of expertise.”
But Panozzo wants these simulations to be available to a wider population. He and his group hope to develop tools for those without mathematical expertise to simulate how geometric shapes are formed.
Panozzo echoed the sentiment of the other two recipients, that he appreciated the recognition that came with the award and added that the grant would continue to support his group at the Geometric Computing Lab — an embodiment of all of his efforts — to continue research.
A third-year computer science doctoral student Yixin Hu, who is part of Panozzo’s team and was one of his first doctoral students, said his work in the field of geometry merited the grant.
“I would say his work is really solid so I think he deserves the prize,” Hu said. “I’m surprised because it’s hard to get the fellowship.”
Constantinople bears a degree in neuroscience from the College of Arts and Science. While she went on to get a doctorate from Columbia University and post-doctorate from Princeton University, Constantinople returned to NYU around a year ago to start her lab supported by the NYU Center for Neural Science.
Her research aims to understand value-based decision-making and how neural circuits facilitate the proces.
“We’re interested in where in the brain we assign value to actions and to outcomes,” Constantinople said.
Much of her research on behavior involves the use of lab rats, a method she said will be further supplemented with the award funds.
“It’s generous support that can both help pay for lab expenses and just kind of support the research in the day to day,” Constantinople said.
She found there to be good institutional support for both her research and the award nomination process.
“NYU has been really supportive, we have this beautiful lab space,” Constantinople said. “We feel like we’ve really been empowered to pursue the true research questions that we think are the most fundamental and the most interesting, and that freedom, I think, is part of why we’re being recognized at this moment.”
Choromanska’s research centers around machine learning, large data analysis and optimization, as they apply to innovations in artificial intelligence and self-driving car systems.
She said the Sloan award was a recognition of efforts for research she has been exploring since her postdoctoral degree. The grant will allow her to investigate and develop algorithms for what she refers to as “loss functions,” the properties of which she said have previously not been well understood.
She did her postdoctoral research at Courant and has been faculty at Tandon since 2017. Choromanska cited her success to resources provided to her through NYU as well as the outgoing nature of other faculty.
“The NYU environment is extremely supportive and inspiring,” Choromanska said. “It’s very easy to collaborate, to discuss ideas.”
Third-year doctoral student Shihong Fang, who currently works with Choromanska, said her accolade was well deserved.
“She cares a lot about her students and she always says she’s my ‘academic mom’,” Fang laughed.
Choromanska said her initial reaction to the news was to recognize those who supported her research efforts.
“A lot of my success comes from a lot of people who have been believing in me and providing support and good advice,” Choromanska said. “This was my first reaction really, […] to make sure that those people who have been standing by my side are really acknowledged and know that I care about them.”
Besides the great minds and resources available to her through NYU, she further attributes her success to her family.
“Behind the success and all that is also very much my husband, my child and my brother because they’re all in New York,“ Choromanska said. “Family support is always the most important.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 18, 2020, print edition. Email Lisa Cochran at [email protected].