Erin Chambers, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science, has been awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a five-year grant totaling over $400,000, as part of its Faculty Early Career Development Program to support her research in computational topology.
|Erin Chambers, Ph.D.|
The continuing grant award allows Chambers to continue and extend her research in computational geometry and topology, an area of study that lies at the intersection of computer science and applied mathematics.
While the application of this complex research is far-reaching, Chambers summarizes some uses in simple terms.
"What it's used for is things like mesh generation - like in Pixar movies - how to move those meshes and how to code video games that represent things with triangles." she said. "You need to know properties of those meshes, how to create them, how to manipulate them and what to do with them."
The CAREER award, part of the NSF's Faculty Early Career Development Program, is given to junior faculty in mathematics, science and engineering who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
Chambers' work does precisely that; it integrates her research into her teaching and advising.
Part of the grant money will be allocated to fund undergraduate and graduate assistantships, allowing SLU students to be, as Chambers puts it, "extremely involved," in the research process and ideally pursue their thesis research in the same field.
Chambers' research develops algorithms to compute shortest paths and maximum flows on non-planar surfaces. Her work has applications in medical imaging, statistical analysis of high-dimensional data sets, shape modeling and flow and routing problems.
"Part of my research is looking at graph theory. We represent a lot of objects as graphs and imagine they lie on a surface. A lot of graphs are planar and just lie flat. My graphs lie on higher-dimensional surfaces, such as donuts and surfaces with multiple handles."
It also has other applications for researchers working with large sets of data.
"If you have a huge data set, you can always represent it as a very high-dimensional set of points and start to ask, ‘What can learn about this data if I can see it as a surface?'" Chambers said. "Think about an application in biological research where you represent a protein structure to predict how it may move."
The research also touches areas of our daily lives where you have probably never considered computational geometry, or anything close to that, but strive for optimization.
"Imagine that you have a set of supply centers and they're creating product that needs to be shipped to demand centers. Starbucks, for example, may ask how it can place their chains to optimally serve everybody.' That all ties back into the geometry involved in the research."
Chambers joined the SLU faculty in 2008 as an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and computer science. She completed her doctorate in computer science at the University of Illinois at Champaign, where she also earned her bachelor's and master's degrees.
She is a 2009 recipient of the SLU Summer Research Award and was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow from 2002-07.