White House Selects Computer Scientist Barna Saha for Early Career Award

Barna Saha
Barna Saha

Algorithm and data management expert Barna Saha, assistant professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), was recently chosen by the White House to receive the highest U.S. award given to rising stars of science and technology who work at the frontiers of new research and ideas, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

It recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who show exceptional promise in their early career for leadership in science and technology, according to the White House. Each year the National Science Foundation (NSF) nominates scientists for the PECASE from among its recent CAREER awardees.

Saha, who will be joining the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in Fall 2019, says of winning the PECASE honor, “I am grateful to the National Science Foundation for the support. It is a deep honor to be included with such an esteemed group of scientists and engineers. I have gone through many ups and downs in my career. This recognition gives me new encouragement to work harder and pursue the research directions I love.”

CICS Dean Laura Haas congratulated Saha on her achievement, “This highly selective award is further proof that Barna is one of the top young researchers in the field of theoretical computer science. We are proud that her work at UMass Amherst is being recognized and look forward to seeing her future discoveries.”  

As Saha explains some of her theoretical research, “I try to determine the fastest possible algorithms for important optimization problems. Along with my collaborators, wehave managed to find significantly faster approximation algorithms for problems including shortest paths in graphs, matrix multiplication over certain algebraic structures, language edit distance and RNA folding.” These have applications in such areas as data cleaning, computing the secondary structure of the RNA molecule and genome comparison, she adds.

Further, Saha investigates one of the oldest problems in computing, the question of which problems can be solved by computers in a reasonable amount of time, and equally important, those that “no matter how clever you are, you cannot solve them efficiently.”

At present, she is seeking to develop a “finer-grained design and analysis of algorithms” that will lead to a better understanding of the extent of speed-up possible especially for high-degree polynomial time problems. For now, she adds, “except for a few problem-specific innovations, the study of such algorithms is deeply lacking in the literature.”

In recent years, Saha has received a number of high-profile awards. Most recently she was one ofthree researchers from campus to receive a 2019 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation research fellowship, one of just 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers to be so honored. Like the PECASE, it recognizesearly career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields.

She also won NSF’s highest honor for faculty early career development, the five-year CAREER award, in 2017. And, she received the foundation’s CISE Research Initiation Initiative award for developing fast algorithms for dynamic programming. It led to her solving some long-standing questions and opened new directions for her CAREER grant.

Before coming to UMass Amherst in 2014, Saha was a research scientist at AT&T Shannon Research Laboratory, which she joined after completing her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011.