Cambridge, Mass. - March 10, 2014 - Jelani Nelson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has been selected to receive a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) 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.

The $500,000 CAREER Award will support Nelson's research in an increasingly important area: he is designing algorithms that will make it easier to obtain useful information from massive datasets.

Using a technique called "sketching," it is possible to create a very compressed version of a dataset that lacks all the detail but provides sufficient information to answer certain queries. Sometimes, these sketches can be exponentially smaller than the original dataset, allowing savings in processing time, communications bandwidth, and required storage capacity. The algorithms that produce these sketches, however, must be carefully designed to guarantee an adequate degree of accuracy.

Nelson will examine the tradeoffs in those competing goals by delving into three challenging aspects of sketching—topics referred to as streaming, dimensionality reduction, and compressed sensing. The eventual applications of this fundamental work could be far-reaching, improving computational tools in fields like computer vision, machine learning, databases, and data mining.

A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nelson earned an S.B. in mathematics and computer science (2005), an M.Eng. in computer science (2006), and a Ph.D. in computer science (2011). He completed postdoctoral research at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and at the Princeton University Center for Computational Intractibility; and from 2012 to 2013 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. He joined the Harvard faculty in July 2013.

The CAREER program encourages the integration of research and education goals in pursuit of a "discovery process in which the excitement of research is enhanced by inspired teaching and enthusiastic learning." Nelson is currently teaching CS 124, Data Structures and Algorithms, to undergraduate and graduate students. He has also taught the graduate research course CS 229r on algorithms for big data.

The CAREER Award will take effect on May 1, 2014, providing support for approximately five years.