Hundreds of Students, Scholars Receive Interdisciplinary Research Grants

San Diego, March 13, 2015 — One hundred undergraduates, 80 Ph.D. students, and 20 postdoctoral scholars all received a big boost to their careers thanks to recent competitive awards by the Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program (FISP). The program also represents a major investment in the future of interdisciplinary research on the UC San Diego campus.

The Qualcomm Institute will host as many as 15 of the 200 FISP Scholars working on interdisciplinary research projects.

Ten of the winning projects are based in the Qualcomm Institute, and at least five others will be largely carried out in the institute despite being based in an academic department.

The funds will primarily be used to fund postdoctoral and graduate student researchers on interdisciplinary projects, up to $25,000 per award. Smaller FISP grants of $3,000 each will go to undergraduate students who work part-time on a project.

“The Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program builds the interdisciplinary expertise we will need to address national and global challenges,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “Like the ongoing Frontiers of Innovation seed funding for new research centers on campus, this program is an investment in the university’s leadership role in interdisciplinary research.”

According to Vice Chancellor for Research Sandra A. Brown, whose Office of Research Affairs oversees parts of the Frontiers of Innovation programs, “these investments will forge new intellectual enterprises, which increasingly rely on the ability to work across diverse disciplines, either individually or as members of multidisciplinary teams.”

While undergraduates will have new opportunities to work on multidisciplinary projects in a single laboratory or program, Ph.D. graduate students and postdoctoral scholars will have mentors in at least two different divisions (that is, Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences; Health Sciences and Arts and Humanities; Marine Sciences and Engineering).

For example, research scientists affiliated with the Qualcomm Institute will channel their Frontiers of Innovation funding to Ph.D. students in (a) philosophy, with grad student Damon Crockett working with the institute’s Lev Manovich; and (b) political science, with student Michael Davidson working with another Ph.D. student, Sara Kerosky, and research scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin on a project involving remote-sensing technology.

“Funding from the Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program is a tremendous boost to our efforts to answer important political-science questions using remote sensing,” said Davidson. “We are working to detect and measure illegal coastal mining in the Philippines with high-resolution satellite imagery. Funding from FISP will pay for computing power and some of the countless hours we’ll spend on the project.”

Five Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) graduate students will be funded through FISP awards. They include Jagannathan Venkatesh, a Ph.D. student working with CSE Prof. Tajana Rosing, and an as-yet-unnamed CSE graduate student who will work with Qualcomm Institute research scientist (and CSE lecturer) Jurgen Schulze.

Working in CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner's group, second-year Ph.D. student Quentin Gautier is collaborating with archaeology professor Thomas Levy to develop an underwater imaging platform for creating 3D models of underwater artifacts such as the model of an underwater cannon in Tobago, one of the project's test sites.

Ph.D. student Quentin Gautier will work with CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner on 3D modeling for underwater archaeology, and Alexandria Shearer will do her research on aerial LIDAR scanning under the joint guidance of Kastner and Qualcomm Institute principal development engineer Curt Schurgers. Shearer’s research is applied specifically to aerial laser scanning of Mayan archaeological sites (which are often complicated because ruins are inaccessible and tend to be located in areas with dense jungle canopies). “Both of these projects were kickstarted with previous awards from the Qualcomm Institute through its Calit2 Strategic Research Opportunities grant program,” noted Kastner.

CSE research scientist Nadir Weibel was awarded $25,000, which will allow him to employ Master’s student Narendran Thangarajan to work for the Winter and Spring quarters, after which he will graduate. The funding will allow Thangarajan to work on a project to detect the social networks of San Diegans considered at-risk of contracting HIV. “Through this interdisciplinary project, I am learning how to participate in research where human subjects are involved,” says Thangarajan, “as well as medical practices related to HIV. The Frontiers of Innovation funding will allow me to spend more time on research, which in turn will help our research project to advance and reach our envisioned goal.”

According to CSE’s Weibel, the researchers will use "publicly available Twitter data to uncover the structure and content of the online social networks of HIV at-risk individuals." Once the Twitter network is characterized, it will be compared to the real-world network of patients already known to the UC San Diego School of Medicine's AntiViral Research Center (AVRC) and Dr. Susan Little, whose Primary Infection Research Consortium (PIRC) collects multidimensional epidemiological, clinical, treatment, social and behavioral data from HIV-infected and HIV at-risk individuals (hence the interdisciplinary nature of the research). "Our goal is to use the information from the online social network to initiate and inform targeted, real-world HIV prevention interventions," said Thangarajan. "This could involve stepped-up efforts in specific parts of the city, or specific segments of the population." 

FISP awardee Michael Davidson (left) with Sara Kerosky will work on remote-sensing and satellite imaging, pictured here in front of the Qualcomm Institute VROOM display system.

Thangarajan joined the CSE department in 2013 after completing his undergraduate degree in India. Since then, the graduate student has worked on artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and social media, with Weibel since early 2014. The FISP grant will also allow CSE's Weibel to cover other expenses, such as for data storage space in 'the cloud', infrastructure to perform big-data analysis, and travel by Weibel and Thangarajan to present their preliminary findings at academic conferences.

Research scientists affiliated with the Qualcomm Institute will also channel their FISP awards to Ph.D. students in unexpected departments. Philosophy grad student Damon Crockett will be funded via the Qualcomm Institute’s Lev Manovich, and Political Science student Michael Davidson is slated to work with research scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin.

Several of the graduate projects will be carried out under the umbrella of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), directed by Structural Engineering professor Falko Kuester.  Furthermore, Kuester was also awarded six undergraduate FISP grants, all of them unnamed so far, but effectively allocated to CISA3.  The center has substantial funding from the National Science Foundation’s IGERT graduate training program to support its grad-student trainees, but Kuester hopes to engage more undergraduates in the center's interdisciplinary research activities, and having six FISP grants in hand will make it easier to recruit undergraduates to the program.

Another program that grew out of CISA3, the Engineers for Exploration (E4E) program, co-directed by CSE’s Kastner, also made a successful pitch for FISP support. As a result, Kastner is the Principal Investigator on four awards for undergraduates in the E4E program. Of the four, two will go to students in Kastner’s home department: computer science senior Antonella Wilby, and computer engineering junior Jorge Pacheco. The other two undergrads are astrophysics sophomore Dominique Meyer, and electrical engineering senior Nathan Hui. All four work on aerial or underwater imaging, among other exploration-related projects. 

Media Contacts

Doug Ramsey, (858) 822-5825, or Paul K. Mueller, 858-534-8564,

Related Links

List of Frontiers of Innovation Undergraduate Scholars
Frontiers of Innovation Graduate Scholars
Frontiers of Innovation Postdoctoral Scholars