Campus & Community

Radhika Nagpal nets prestigious NSF award for up-and-coming researchers

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Radhika Nagpal, assistant professor of computer science in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has won a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The honor is considered one of the most prestigious for up-and-coming researchers in science and engineering.

Nagpal, whose work bridges computer science and biology, plans to use the $400,000 award (paid over five years) to further her research on self-organizing systems. In particular, she is interested in learning how to better engineer self-organizing, self-repairing distributing computing systems. She also wants to gain a fuller understanding of robust collective behavior in biological systems.

“Many areas in computer science depend on the ability to easily program robust collective behavior from massively parallel substrates, from traditional computer networks to modular robotics,” says Nagpal. “Advances could significantly improve the ability to design computing systems that self-organize, self-heal, and adapt. This research can also influence biology by providing novel insights into tissue development and disease.”

For example, designing a robust algorithm could ensure that vast numbers of decentralized digital components, as in the case of a sensor network, could learn to “communicate” on their own and recover if one or several nodes, for example, shut down. Likewise, one day such recovery technology could even be applied to a multi-cellular organism like the heart so it could heal itself when damaged.

“I am extremely pleased that the NSF has chosen to acknowledge Radhika for her compelling research,” said Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, dean of SEAS. “As important, Radhika finds the time to bring her research, from robotics to genetic machines, directly to undergraduates through teaching and competitions. She’s a model academic.”

Nagpal, who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), joined Harvard in the fall of 2004 and teaches the popular introductory course “Computer Science 51.”

Before her arrival at SEAS, she spent a year as a research fellow in the recently formed Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. Previously, she was a postdoctoral lecturer and graduate student at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a member of the Amorphous Computing Group.