Three Cornell faculty members win 1998 Sloan Research Fellowships, giving support to scientists early in their careers

Three Cornell University faculty members have been awarded Sloan Research Fellowships for 1998: Dong Lai, assistant professor of astronomy; Gregory Morrisett, assistant professor of computer science, and Michael J. Spivey-Knowlton, assistant professor of psychology.

The 100 research fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are awarded each year to scientists early in their careers in six fields (physics, chemistry, pure mathematics, neuroscience, applied mathematics and economics, and computer science) and are intended to help "young scholars of outstanding promise" set up laboratories and develop research projects. Since the fellowships were established in 1955, 21 Sloan fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Dong Lai currently splits his research into several areas, including the surface physics of neutron stars, the astrophysical sources of gravitational waves, and how neutrinos are transported through the strong magnetic fields of supernovas. He is trying to understand the sources of gravitational waves, which he hopes one day will allow astronomers to directly test Einstein's theory of general relativity.

"The fellowship is very flexible and it will allow me to pursue solutions to different kinds of astrophysical problems," says Lai.

Lai earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Science and Technology of China in 1988, and a master's degree and a doctorate from Cornell in 1991 and 1994, respectively, in the area of theoretical astrophysics. Lai returned to Cornell in 1997 as an assistant professor of astronomy after a post-doctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

Morrisett came to Cornell in 1995 after earning a doctorate at Carnegie-Mellon University. He works with compilers, or programs that translate instructions written in "high-level" languages into machine code that can be executed by a computer.

Morrisett is particularly interested in so-called "safe" programming languages, like Java, that create programs that can be moved from one computer to another across the Internet or a local network. The security features that prevent these programs from causing harm to computers tend to make the programs large, slow and inefficient. Worse, some of the security can get lost in the compiling process.

Working with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, Morrisett has created a prototype compiler called TIL (for Typed Intermediate Language) for a powerful language called Meta-Language, used by computer professionals. TIL produces smaller and faster programs that can be tested for safety. He is currently building a new compiler called TILT (TIL-Two) that will extend the idea to larger and more complex programs.

"The Sloan Fellowship will allow me to explore language design and implementation issues for the next generation of computing and communication devices so that when we're confronted with some of these hard problems such as security issues we'll have a better grasp on how to avoid some of the serious pitfalls," Morrisett says.

Spivey-Knowlton joined the psychology faculty in 1996 after earning a doctorate in brain and cognitive sciences (1996) from University of Rochester and a bachelor's degree in psychology with highest honors (1991) from University of California at Santa Cruz. A specialist in psycholinguistics and visual perception, he teaches classes in modeling perception and cognition, modeling language and introduction to cognitive science at Cornell. Most recently, he was a co-organizer of the 1997 Workshop on Interfacing Models of Language Processing at Breckenridge, Colo., and organizer of the 1998 Lake Ontario Visionary Establishment Conference at Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Spivey-Knowlton will use his Sloan Fellowship, the first awarded to a Cornell psychologist, to continue his study of the way different "packages" of information, such as visual input and linguistic input, both divide and share space in the human brain and are integrated into representations of complex objects and events.

His pioneering use of helmet-mounted, eye-tracking devices allows Spivey-Knowlton to monitor experimental subjects' responses to visual and linguistic stimuli, while they are free to move their heads and interact with real, three-dimensional environments. In the developing field of cognitive neuroscience, findings from the psychologist's experiments are revising the understanding of visual perception, language comprehension and the degree to which the two cooperate with each other.

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