Jelani Nelson, Assistant Professor Computer Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Nelson is among 102 scientists and researchers who received the award, which is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said in a statement. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

Nelson, who joined SEAS in 2013, focuses his research on the development of efficient algorithms for 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 still provides sufficient information to answer queries with high accuracy. His methods can be applied to streaming data and leverage methods from computational algebra and statistics. The applications of this work are diverse, and include computer vision, astrophysics, systems biology, networks, and the digital economy.

“Jelani Nelson is developing algorithms that enable questions to be asked of mountains of data while storing all but a grain. By making the impossible possible, Nelson’s research expands the frontier of scientific advances that can come from working with data,” said David C. Parkes, George F. Colony Professor and Area Dean of Computer Science. “It is thrilling and inspiring to see his breathtaking talent honored through this award.”

Nelson, who was named a Young Investigator Award Recipient by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in 2015, also recently received a prestigious ONR Director of Research Early Career Grant. The $1 million award, presented to the top Young Investigator Award recipients, will fund his research into the use of sketching methods for high-dimensional data analysis.

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