Assistant professors Arun Natarajan, Danny Dig and Stephen Ramsey talk about their diverse areas of research.

It was a bumper year for professors earning the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University’s College of Engineering. Danny Dig, Arun Natarajan and Stephen Ramsey all received awards this year, bringing the grand total to 21 for the school.

“The three CAREER awards we received this year are testaments to the quality of the research programs and education plans of these faculty members, as well as their potential to make significant and transformative contributions to science and engineering,” said V John Mathews, head of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The award is a five year grant that supports both research and educational activities including outreach to K-12 schools. The research of the three recipients have broad impacts in industry, science and health: Dig’s research helps programmers avoid common errors in app development; Natarajan is advancing the capacity of wireless networks; and Ramsey’s research aims to uncover genetic factors related to heart disease and body mass index.

Partnering with industry to improve apps

“I’m humbled,” said Danny Dig, assistant professor of computer science, about receiving the award. “I’m really pleased to receive recognition from NSF that I have a career trajectory that is worth funding.”

Picture of a smart phone

Danny Dig’s research helps programmers keep apps running smoothly.

Dig’s research will focus on widespread problems in mobile app development that can cause applications to be unresponsive and “freeze.” His previous research of over 1,000 open-source mobile apps found two main problems — underuse and misuse of asynchronous programming. Asynchronous programming moves operations, such as fetching data from the cloud, into the background.

“The reason I work in mobile is that it's very easy for a mobile app to become unresponsive, and asynchrony is at the heart of keeping apps running smoothly,” Dig said.

Dig works closely with industry programmers to transfer the knowledge from his research directly into practice. Over the years, his team has sent out hundreds of patches to developers to fix the problems in their code, and they have created tools that developers can use to find and fix asynchrony errors. Dig provides education through his websites (LearnAsync.NET and refactoring.info/tools) and gives workshops for industry programmers.

In addition to continuing this work, Dig will be developing more tools that provide programmers the ability to easily upgrade code to new asynchronous models, and mine source code to find places where asynchronous coding should be used. He also plans to include cloud computing and web applications in his research.

The award will allow Dig to expand his outreach to K-12 students. The plan includes a summer camp for youth hosted at Oregon State in partnership with Microsoft. Participants will be able to develop apps directly on smartphones using Microsoft Touch Develop.

Dig will also be able to provide scholarships to students from groups underrepresented in computing. “This is a phenomenal opportunity to attract minorities and females to computing because everybody is excited about apps,” Dig said.

Increasing the capacity of wireless networks

Arun Natarajan had an epiphany that could change how wireless networks operate.

It is a system that is in need of a breakthrough: As the demand for data usage increases exponentially, the rate of growth is threatening to outstrip the current capacity for cellular and wireless networks.

“We have wrung the last bit of juice out of each of the components now,” said Natarajan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “The communication arrays are packing every last bit of information that they can into a given spectrum, and from circuits we are only getting incremental improvements in receiver sensitivities. The innovation has to come from new concepts.”

In order to increase capacity, wireless networks are moving to a system that reuses frequencies. For example, a frequency can be reused at two different cellular base stations so that two users who are accessing different base stations can use the same frequency. Researchers are working on the concept of making the base stations smaller, so a single user could have their own base station in their office. This would allow for denser reuse of frequencies.

It’s a very powerful concept and people are excited about it. I think it’s likely that people will start adopting this philosophy.

Reusing frequencies makes it difficult to distinguish signals by frequency only, so Natarajan is working on how to differentiate signals by location. Here’s where his epiphany came in. Rather than looking for all signals at certain frequencies, which is the standard way of doing it, he figured out how to block signals coming from a specific direction. The method also has applications for military defense where it would be important to block signals coming from a malicious source that is trying to jam a receiver.

“It’s a very powerful concept and people are excited about it. I think it’s likely that people will start adopting this philosophy,” Natarajan said.

The award will also allow Natarajan to spend time on putting together a new course with his colleagues in communications for graduate students that will focus on issues of integrating hardware with communication theory. In addition, he will be able to support a high school student to assist with the research over the summer. 

“The key impact of the award is that it gives my students and me an opportunity to broaden our research and address challenges related to emerging high-speed wireless links,” Natarajan said. “On a personal level, it allows me to do some educational outreach that I’ve been wanting to do.”

Searching for disease risk between the genes

“It’s career making!” said Stephen Ramsey, assistant professor of computer science and biomedical sciences, of the award. “It’s very significant because the five-year grant enables me to have longevity for my research program. To make research breakthroughs, you need the kind of sustained effort that is enabled by the CAREER award.”

Ramsey’s research uses computer science — specifically, machine learning — for biomedical applications such as discovering genetic factors that are involved in heart disease.

Massive data sets are the foundation of his research examining variations in the human genome. But he is not looking at the genes — instead, he is analyzing the spaces in between the genes, the relatively unstudied portion of the genome that contributes about 40 percent of the heritable risk for disease.

Gene graphic

Stephen Ramsey’s research focuses on the area between the genes that contribute to the heritable risk for heart disease.

“It’s a needle in a haystack problem,” Ramsey said. He is looking for differences between individuals as small as one nucleotide — a single rung in the ladder of the double helix — among a hundred million nucleotides that are known to be variable in the human population.

What excites him about the research is the ability to have an impact on human health. “If we can better understand the molecular basis of disease, it will help us come up with new targets for drugs to prevent or treat disease,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey’s work has so far focused on heart disease, but he is broadening his scope to look at the genetic factors involved in body mass index. He will also develop a computational model of genetic variants involved in controlling gene expression, and make it available to the scientific community. The model could be used by anyone studying genetics including traits such as schizophrenia, autism, height and Type II diabetes.

He also plans to bring his excitement about bioinfomatics to high school students through afterschool and summer workshops that will introduce them to modern genetics, including analyzing real data with a genome browser. Initial programs will be held at Oregon State through the precollege program, Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE). Additionally, Ramsey will be working towards developing materials that could be used by any high school across the country.