Williams Professors Robert Savage, Andrea Danyluk and Kim Bruce recently received grants to fund research.
Assistant Professor of Biology Robert Savage was awarded a $108,693 grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to fund his research. Savage is currently studying the function of one gene in the development of a leech embryo. His study is focusing on how the individual cells in each segment of the leech know whether they are interior or exterior cells and where they belong and what proteins, or tools, the embryos use in putting their plans together.
Even though his study is currently focusing on leeches, Savage hopes to extend it to include all annelids and, eventually, all animals. Savage described all animals as being made of the same building blocks and having the same genetic circuitry, which is tweaked in order to make each species different. In looking at the leech gene, Savage hopes to uncover the reason why some genes are different in each species and why some always stay the same. After discovering this, he is hoping to figure out how to generate or prevent change.
Savage said that he will use the grant money to pay student assistants over the summer and buy expensive supplies, including $2,000 worth of snails to feed the leeches each year.
For Savage, the grant was necessary because “the College can only supply enough to keep you alive.” He said in order to make any rapid progress he would need a grant and the money the college could give him would not be nearly enough.
Savage’s grant is for three years. He said that he hopes to finish his work with the leeches in that time. At the moment, his research is right on schedule.
Daniel Lynch, Professor of Biology and chair of the department, described grants like this as being essential to research at Williams. Lynch said that the grants allow the faculty to do research, keeping them active in their areas. He also said that the grants benefit students by keeping research labs active, giving them opportunities to assist professors with their research and work on their own summer or thesis research. Lynch added that the availability of research options makes Williams students more successful in graduate schools.
“The opportunities for students to do research is really outstanding here,” he said. “Grants allow us to keep this level of student research.”
Lynch commented on what an honor it was for Savage to be awarded this grant, “Receiving a grant like this is essentially a sign that they are among the top ten or twenty percent in the country.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded assistant professor of computer science Andrea Danyluk $74,352 to continue her research.
Danyluk is currently researching how to deal with error associated with algorithms that do pattern recognition on large amounts of data, or “data mining.” Her research is focusing on real-life situations, what happens when there is an error in the data or a systemic error. The grant money will be focused on answering two questions: How are the algorithms affected by this error? and How does one know if one has discovered systemic error or a legitimate pattern?
In her research, Danyluk is hoping to discover how errors in data affect the algorithms, as the error in some algorithms changes linearly with the error whereas others are tolerant of error to a point before they completely break down. Along with this, Danyluk is also hoping to discover new algorithms that would help to locate the source of the error.
Although she does not need any new equipment, Danyluk will use the seventeen-month grant to pay three students over the summer and to travel to various conferences.
Danyluk said that although “the College has been really helpful in doing research,” she cannot ask for money. The grant money is necessary for her to continue her research.
At the same time as she’s been working on this research, Danyluk has also been working on other related research projects. She is currently studying methods in time-series analysis, how to predict machine failure over time.
Another of Danyluk’s current projects focuses on the accuracy of algorithms and when perfect accuracy might not be beneficial. Danyluk used the example of using computers to predict the recurrence of cancer in previously treated patients. She said that it might be better for the computer to err on the side of predicting that more people would have a recurrence than fewer so that people would not be labeled as safe and left unwatched. Part of her research focuses on finding an algorithm that takes things like this into account.
Alex Eaton-Salners ’99 worked with Danyluk over the course of the last semester with her research. Eaton-Salners helped Danyluk to try and locate systematic data error using conceptual clustering, which classifies data points by certain classification schemes. Those points or groups of points that do not fit into the cluster contain systematic error. Eaton-Salners’ role was to develop clustering hypotheses and then determine feasibility tests to confirm them.
Eaton-Salners said that doing the research was a way for him to “try out the real world.” Having found the research is not “quite as exciting” as he had expected, Eaton-Salners is questioning whether or not he will attend graduate school.
Professor of Computer Science Kim Bruce also received a grant of $104,000 from the NSF for his research entitled “Design of Object-Oriented Programming Languages.”
Bruce’s research focuses on developing safer programming languages. Bruce is looking to discover a language which has a built in safety check, but that is also easier to use and write in.
The fourth in a series of NSF grants to fund this project over fifteen years, this grant will pay for one or two students over the summer, travel to conferences, Bruce’s summer salary and computer equipment over the next two years.
Bruce described his research as “an endless, ongoing project.” He added that “there are always new problems to be solved.”
Bruce said that in the future he hopes to research compilers, which translate between the computer and the person.
Joe Vanderwaart ’99 worked with Professor Bruce on his research over the summers of ’97 and’98. Vanderwaart described the research as looking into “the design of object-oriented programming languages that are both safe and expressive.”
Vanderwaart said that Bruce’s research over the past few years has focused around LOOM, a computer language that he and his students created. Vanderwaart’s role in the research was to “design a new language construct to be added to LOOM,” which would make it more expressive without making it less safe.
Vanderwaart said that he enjoyed the research itself and learned a lot from doing it, although it was difficult for him at first. He said that most of what Bruce does is theoretical, something which he was not previously used to.
On working with Bruce, Vanderwaart said, “As I learned more about the subject and became a little more comfortable with some of its theoretical foundations, I think we started to communicate better.”
After graduation, Vanderwaart plans to attend graduate school in computer science and specifically programming languages. He said that doing the research helped him to select the subfield that he liked to study and he was also published with Bruce, which he hopes will help in the admissions process.