Cornell researchers Edwin Kan and Greg Morrisett honored at White House with Presidential Early Career Awards

Two Cornell faculty members are among this year's recipients of a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE), the White House announced today (Tuesday, Oct. 24).

Edwin C. Kan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Greg Morrisett, assistant professor of computer science, were among 60 researchers who received the awards at a ceremony today in the White House Old Executive Building in Washington, D. C. The awards were presented by Neal Lane, the president's science adviser.

The PECASE award is the highest honor bestowed by the U. S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of establishing their independent research careers. The awards are given to researchers who have received their Ph.D. degrees within the past five years. The Clinton administration established the awards in February 1996 to recognize some of the nation's finest junior scientists and to maintain U. S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific research.

"These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country," President Clinton said. "Through their talent, ability, and dedication, they will quicken the pace of discovery and put science and technology to work advancing the human condition as never before."

Award winners are nominated by eight federal agencies. Kan's nomination was one of 20 from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Morrisett's was one of two from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The awards carry research grants of up to $500,000 over five years.

Morrisett joined the Cornell faculty in 1995 after receiving his Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon University. His research focuses on the development of programming languages that can enforce computer security. In particular, he studies the problems presented by "mobile code" – computer programs that travel across networks to be executed on a recipient's computer. High-level programming languages like Java contain safeguards to prevent such code from taking malicious actions on the computers on which they are executed. Morrisett is developing ways to incorporate such safeguards into compact machine code.

High-level languages provide security by a device called "typing," in which limitations are placed on parts of the program. For example, the file typing in Java prevents a visiting program from reading or writing files on the computer where a program is running. But typing is enforced by the compiler that converts a program in a high-level language into the machine code that actually runs on the computer. Once a program has been made into machine language, a sophisticated programmer could make further changes. Morrisett says it is possible to write a simple mathematical proof that a machine-language program is safe and does what it says it does, and this proof could be transmitted to the receiving computer along with the program. It's then possible, he says, for the receiving computer to verify that the proof fits the program. "Constructing a proof is very hard, but validating a proof is very simple, so we're not putting the onus on the web browser," Morrisett explains.

Kan came to Cornell in 1997, after working as a research associate at Stanford University and in industry. Born in Taiwan, he received his B.S. degree from National Taiwan University in 1984, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1988 and 1992, respectively, all in electrical engineering. He specializes in the design of integrated circuits, working on the development of circuits with elements as small as 20 nanometers (a nanometer is three times the diameter of a silicon atom) and on the incorporation of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) into integrated circuits.

By backing up electronic circuits with nanoscale mechanical devices that process and store information, he says, it will be possible to preserve critical data that might be destroyed by electromagnetic interference. He is also developing chips that would provide their own internal power supply by converting vibration into electric energy, making it possible to create a complete self-contained "system on a chip." Such chips might be used for medical implants that would draw their power from the movements of the human body. As a demonstration, he is working on a self-powered "silicon flea," the size of a real flea, that can move, sense its environment and communicate with similar devices.

In nominating recipients for the PECASE awards, the NSF also looks for faculty members who are working to improve the educational process, and Kan hopes to reorganize courses in chip design in Cornell's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "I'm looking at ways to have a more reasonable sequence and better affinity of courses," he says. "Right now it's impossible for a student to take all the courses. For knowledge to progress we'll have to condense it."

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