Two Georgia Tech Faculty Honored by the White House

Kim Cobb, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Sciences, and Nick Feamster, assistant professor in the School of Computer Science and the Georgia Tech Information Security Center in the College of Computing, have been recognized as two of the nation's top young scientists with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The ceremony was held today at the White House.

The PECASE program recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of knowledge. This Presidential Award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers beginning their careers.

"I'm delighted that the achievements and extraordinary potential of these two exceptional faculty members are being recognized by the National Science Foundation and by the President of the United States," said Gary Schuster, interim president of the Georgia Tech. "This is outstanding news for them - a PECASE award and the accompanying support can have a lasting positive effect on a research career. And this is yet another indicator that Georgia Tech's reputation is strong as a leading research institution. I am proud to serve at a university that has such dedicated and committed faculty members."

Kim Cobb

Cobb's research focuses on understanding climate change using geological archives such as corals and cave stalagmites. By reconstructing the climate from the past few decades to the last several millennia, Cobb aims to inform current climate models that help predict how changes might occur in the future.

"I'm happy that my climate change research seems to be a focus on the national stage," said Cobb. "I hope that it serves to emphasize the importance of paleo-climate research in this field."

She joined the faculty at Georgia Tech in 2004 after earning her Ph.D. in oceanography in 2002 from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and spending two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech.

"Models can only take you so far in seeing how the climate may change over the next few decades," said Cobb. "In many cases, the data is too short, so the paleo-climate data is added to make a more complete record, so we can see how temperature and precipitation patterns respond to climate forcing."

Cobb has spent time in the caves of Borneo, analyzing stalagmites in search of clues about the climate of the earth's past. This month, she's traveling to the Bahamas to take high-definition footage of coral reefs so they can be rendered in a 3D virtual environment.

The multidisciplinary research team, which also includes Frank Dellaert from Tech's College of Computing and Brian Magerko from Tech's Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, will also be using the hi-def images they take of the reef to create a virtual ecosystem that scientists can use to collaborate and share data.

"This current research has educational uses for schools and museums, but we can also use the technology to capture large tracts of the reef in detail so other scientists can see species diversity and coral health without having to spend the money to go there," she said.

Nick Feamster

Feamster received his Ph.D. in computer science from MIT in 2005, and his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT in 2000 and 2001, respectively. He joined the faculty at Georgia Tech in January 2006.

He is developing techniques, tools and systems to make it easier to manage and protect network operations. Networks, particularly communications networks, have become larger, more complex and virtually ubiquitous. This makes them more valuable to users, but also more vulnerable to problems and attacks.

"A lot of people have figured out that you can make a quick buck with spam or phishing attacks, and securing networks has become a really big problem," Feamster said. "You have people out there who are not just trying to do damage or inflict harm to the network, but to make money."

Much of Feamster's current research focuses on making it easier for network operators and managers to do their jobs well. Network operators have to make the network highly available and secure at the same time, and that means monitoring network conditions, detecting problems that can be fixed and quickly taking steps to fix them. But when networks go down or suffer outside attacks, he says, operators often don't have a complete picture of what happened and have to rely on anecdotal data gathered from individual users who have called a help line or reported a problem.

"If we could automate some of that and gather data from the edge of the network where the individual machines and users are and somehow push that information back into the network, it would help network operators figure out the problem and fix it faster," he said.

Feamster also is working on solutions to unwanted network traffic/spam and phishing attacks. He says current fixes, such as applying spam filters based on words in an e-mail or the IP address of the sender's computer, are too specific, and spammers have quickly figured out how to get around them. In his research, Feamster focuses on identifying some key and unchanging characteristics of spam so computer scientists can develop broader protections against it.

"The number of recipients is a good example," he said. "If an e-mail has hundreds of recipients, there's a good chance it's spam. Also legitimate users of e-mail send messages that vary greatly in length, from one-liners to maybe several pages. The length of spam is almost always within a certain, limited range."

Cobb and Feamster were nominated for the PECASE by the National Science Foundation. Eight federal departments and agencies annually nominate scientists and engineers at the start of their careers whose work shows exceptional promise for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the twenty-first century. Participating agencies award recipients up to five years of funding to further their research in support of critical government missions.