Yale computer scientist Daniel A. Spielman ’92 has been named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, an honor popularly known as the “genius” grant.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Spielman’s award Oct. 2, along with 22 others — among them three other alumni. The fellowships provide $500,000 over five years to exceptionally creative individuals in a wide variety of fields, with no strings attached.
In its announcement, the foundation described Spielman as “a theoretical computer scientist studying abstract questions that nonetheless affect the essential aspects of daily life in modern society — how we communicate and how we measure, predict and regulate our environment and our behavior ... Spielman is connecting theoretical and applied computer science in both intellectually and socially profound ways.”
A 1992 Yale College graduate who joined the faculty in 2006, Spielman, 42, is Henry Ford II Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. His primary research interests include the development of extremely fast algorithms for large computational problems often found in machine learning, scientific computing, and optimization. His work has broad application in the transfer of digital information.
“Dan Spielman was an exceptional undergraduate in Yale College and he’s dazzled us as a member of the computer science faculty,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “We’re grateful that he’s among us, and delighted by the MacArthur Foundation’s recognition of the great promise inherent in his work.”
Speilman, who was sitting in a New Haven coffee shop when he received first word from the MacArthur Foundation, said he hopes the award will attract greater attention and talent to theoretical computer science.
“A MacArthur Fellowship is very different from the grants that I receive from the federal government,” he said. “Grants from the federal government help my research mainly by supporting my graduate students and by paying part of my salary. The MacArthur Fellowship provides me personally with funds that I can use however I like. I hope to find ways to use them to make more time for me to work on my research. The funds are provided in 20 installments over 5 years, so I can't do anything too crazy with them.”
Spielman, who served on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before moving to Yale, is also involved in the development of a mathematical field called algebraic and spectral graph theory, which helps solve problems in computer science.
Holly Rushmeier, chair of computer science at Yale, said Spielman’s work has deep implications for theory and practice in mathematics and computer science.
“His results on smoothed analysis of linear programming reconciles its efficiency in practice with earlier negative theoretical results, and illuminates a path toward new results of this kind,” she said. “In coding theory, his novel class of codes achieve nearly optimal rates and decoding and encoding algorithms.”
The MacArthur adds to a fast growing body of accolades for Spielman. Earlier this year the Simons Foundation named him to its inaugural class of Simons Investigators, providing Spielman and Yale’s computer science department with $660,000 over five years. Spielman has also won the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, one of the highest honors in mathematics, and the Gödel Prize.
The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for more. Individuals cannot apply; they must be nominated.
“Dan Spielman's research is internationally recognized for advancing the frontiers of theoretical computer science and applied mathematics,” said Steve Girvin, deputy provost for science & technology. “We are extremely pleased that he is being honored with a MacArthur Fellowship.”
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Alumni winners: Also named MacArthur Fellows are neurobiologist Elissa Hallem (Ph.D. 2005), who studies the physiology and behavioral consequences of odor detection; photographer An-My Le (M.F.A. 1993), whose images depict landscapes transformed by war; and historian Dylan C. Penningroth (B.A. 1993), whose examination of property ownership and kinship sheds light on African-American life in the half-century following the abolition of slavery.