A welcome addition

Hopkins professor gets a $3 million federal grant to study math concepts

June 12, 2008|By Ariane Szu-Tu | Ariane Szu-Tu,Sun Reporter

Growing up in rural Iowa, Carey E. Priebe said, he knew early on that he wanted a career in mathematics.

"I was clearly going to be a failure at farming," joked Priebe, 45, a professor of applied mathematics and statistics at the Johns Hopkins University.

Priebe, who calls himself "just a math guy," won a $3 million federal grant last week as one of the first six university professors to be named National Security Science and Engineering Fellows.

The new fellowship program provides the first unrestricted grants of such magnitude that the Department of Defense has awarded to university faculty members. Scientists say it's an attempt to identify and encourage researchers with novel ideas.

Unlike many defense projects, the work these scientists do with the money is not classified; it is basic research into core scientific and engineering subjects of interest to the department, said Deputy Under Secretary William Rees Jr.

"The research is fundamental, and awardees are encouraged to publish their results," Rees said.

Priebe, who was nominated by Hopkins' president, Dr. William R. Brody, was selected from 500 applicants.

The mathematician graduated from Purdue University and was a researcher for the Navy, where he developed an interest in mass information synthesis.

"A major problem in the military is how to predict what's going to happen," said Priebe, who has taught at Hopkins since 1994. "It plays a major role in who wins and who loses."

One concern, scientists say, is information overload. People can collect far more data than they can process. So, for example, instead of manually reading through millions of scientific journals, scientists can try to teach a computer to sift through the data and draw conclusions using an elaborate mesh of statistical pattern-recognition algorithms.

Priebe said the research plan he submitted to the Department of Defense contained 20 pages of unproved but well-thought-out mathematical conjectures along those lines. With the money from the Pentagon, he said, he plans to turn conjecture into a mathematical theory that others can apply.

Hopkins will receive the grant, but Priebe will determine how the money is spent. Other winners might need labs and complex machinery, Priebe said, but his requirements are simpler.

"They need lasers. I need pencils," he said.

The $3 million will pay for graduate students to conduct research and for travel expenses for his academic collaborators at other universities.

"People say, 'If only I had the opportunity.' I have every opportunity now," Priebe said.

A native of Lone Rock, Iowa, he became a lab researcher at the Naval Ocean Systems Center and the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

It was there, while doing research on the mathematics of sonar-based submarine detection, that Priebe became interested in informatics.

While working by day, he pursued his doctorate at night at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., while raising twins with his wife, Teresa, with whom he lives in King George, Va.

"He's very well thought of here," said Donald T. Gantz, chairman of the department of applied information technology at George Mason, who taught Priebe.

The five other grant recipients are:

* Diana L Huffaker of the University of California, Los Angeles, who will explore dissimilar and nanomaterials integration as a platform for medium and long wave infrared device functionality.

* Stephen L Mayo of the California Institute of Technology, who will research engineering proteins for anti-viral applications

* Chad A Mirkin of Northwestern University, who will research functional, one-dimensional structures based on on-wire lithography.

* Barbara G Shinn-Cunningham of Boston University, who will research managing acoustic communications in high-stress settings;

* Susan Trolier-McKinstry of Pennsylvania State University, who will study high strain actuators for miniaturized actuators and self-powered sensors.

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