Amitabh Basu may be one of the few people who took full advantage of having chickenpox as a child to advance his studies. Confined to his bedroom, he spent most of his time reading books on mathematics and physics.
More than a decade later, that dedication paid off. The National Science Foundation has awarded the Applied Mathematics and Statistics assistant professor a CAREER Award, given to the nation’s most promising researchers at the start of their careers. “I was relieved and happy,” Basu says, adding that the award gives him the financial freedom to better support his PhD students as well as travel to conferences and buy equipment.
Basu, one of 146 engineering faculty selected this year, joins another faculty member, Jaafar El-Awady, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Each will receive $500,000 in research funding, allocated over five years.
Basu studies discrete optimization, a type of calculation commonly used to make decisions in manufacturing, supply-chain design, finance and even airline operations. Discreet optimization entails solving complex problems involving numerous choices in order to optimize a particular objective. One example: A shipping company tries to minimize fuel costs for its delivery truck. In order to save money, the company calculates the most efficient route for a set number of daily deliveries. Another example: An airline company schedules the most efficient use of crewmembers on hundreds of flights.
Basu says many of the mathematical advances that have led to breakthroughs in solution methods have been discovered in the past half century. Companies using software now are able to solve discreet optimization problems in a matter of seconds instead of years.
“If you go back to even the mid-1980s, we could not solve many important large-scale problems,” says Basu. “But then in the 1990s, we figured out how we could use in practice these ideas from geometry to speed up the calculations. Now it’s a huge technology in all of these industries.”
He plans to use the funds to improve the fundamentals of discreet optimization, including developing better pruning strategies—methods to reduce the number of possibilities that can be calculated—so that larger classes of problems can be considered.
He is also considering two other projects. The first project involves working with his Applied Math colleague associate research professor Tamás Budavári to help calculate the proximity of galaxies to our own. The second involves teaming up with Applied Mathematics and Statistics Professor Carey Priebe to assist in the creation of an abstract model of the brain’s neural interconnections. “I’m excited to explore that because it would help neuroscientists discover new structures in the brain,” says Basu.
Basu, who received his PhD through the Algorithms, Combinatorics and Optimization Program at Carnegie Mellon University, has been an assistant professor at JHU since July 2013. He currently teaches combinatorial optimization and graph theory.