White House honors two professors with awards for early career excellence

Nick Feamster, professor in the College of Computing, and Kim Cobb, professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Science, were awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for their early research efforts.

The PECASE award was established in 1996 by the National Science and Technology Council to award the nation’s most promising young scientists. The award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers just beginning in their career pursuits.

Feamster was chosen for his work on network security systems, and Cobb was chosen for her work on paleoclimate and climate change. The pair received their awards at the White House last December, where they had a chance to meet then-President George W. Bush and other young researchers from across the country.

Nine federal departments annually nominate scientists and engineers for the award, for a total of 65 recipients. Both Feamster and Cobb received their award through the National Science Foundation as part of the Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER), which provided them with funding for the research that won them their PECASE award. Out of the several hundred recipients of the CAREER Award, only 20 of them were chosen to receive PECASE awards.

Both Feamster and Cobb credit their success in some part to the great deal of national interest in their research topics. Feamster noted that the general public is becoming increasingly aware of cybercrime. Furthermore, the issue is a matter of national defense.

“Just as the government spends money on roads and bridges, it wants to secure the telecommunications network, because without it we would be crippled,” Feamster said. He also noted that the research-friendly nature of OIT helped him a great deal in his research.

Cobb hopes that this award will highlight the importance of paleoclimatology to the study of climate change.

“Paleoclimate research represents a small portion of climate change research and I hope that this selection reflects the fact that we need more paleoclimate data to test our climate models,” Cobb said.

David Anderson, professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a 2004 PECASE recipient, underscored the importance of this award to a young scientist’s career.

“You get a lot of respect for winning this award. It gives you the freedom to have a vision, and take risks in exploring new ideas. Most importantly, it gives you the opportunity to be a leader,” Anderson said.

Feamster’s research deals with network security and helping network operators do their job more easily. As networks become more ubiquitous, making them easier to manage is critical to defending them against attack. One way to approach the problem is trying to make the network design more robust and secure from attack. “We also try to solve the problem by making it easier for a network operator to diagnose and fix problems once they occur by gathering information from devices and presenting them in a format useful for the operator,” Feamster said.

Cobb’s research involves studying climate change through paleoclimatology, focusing on climate change over the recent geological past to understand climate change today and its future implications.

“We use samples from the Tropical Pacific to figure out the variability of climate in the past and how the ecosystem responded to those changes,” She said.

Using stalagmites from a work site in Borneo and corals from a small set of Pacific Islands, Cobb applies geochemical techniques to gather data about the Earth’s past climate. Her focus is to gather enough data about the past to test and improve climate change models for the future.