UW News

February 20, 2024

UW computer scientists and chemist named Sloan Fellows

three heads shot, one man and two women

Three UW faculty were named Sloan Fellows. From left to right, this year’s UW fellows are Simon S. Du, Adriana Schulz and Alexandra Velian.University of Washington

Three University of Washington faculty members have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 20, are Simon S. Du and Adriana Schulz, both assistant professors in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and Alexandra Velian, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Sloan Fellowships are open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics — and honor early-career researchers whose achievements mark them among the next generation of scientific leaders.

The 126 Sloan Fellows for 2024 were selected by researchers and faculty in the scientific community. Candidates are nominated by their peers, and fellows are selected by independent panels of senior scholars based on each candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become a leader in their field. Each fellow will receive $75,000 to apply toward research endeavors.

This year’s fellows come from 57 institutions across the United States and Canada, spanning fields from evolutionary biology to data science.

Du’s research interests are in the theoretical foundations of machine learning, such as deep learning, representation learning and reinforcement learning.

“Recent breakthroughs in machine learning have relied on large neural network models trained on big data. These powerful models have become the predominant method in many data-driven domains. Another direction of machine learning that is experiencing a paradigm shift is data-driven decision-making, witnessed by increasingly capable self-driving cars, and applications aiming to align with human values, such as in ChatGPT,” Du said. “However, we still don’t have a good understanding of why these paradigms are so powerful. My research aims to open the black box by building the theoretical foundations of modern machine learning paradigms that involve large models and decision-making.”

Schulz’s research creates design tools and systems that aim to revolutionize how physical artifacts are built. A central challenge for design tools used in manufacturing is the need to simultaneously nurture the creative ability to conceive novel designs and the analytical capacity to critically evaluate and optimize functionality and production. In addition to increasing productivity and product quality, her work empowers people of diverse backgrounds to design and create. For example, she worked with UW Medicine to craft custom personal protective equipment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My research tackles the fundamental challenges in manufacturing-oriented design through innovative solutions that are grounded in the fundamentals of geometry processing and combine insights from machine learning and programming languages,” Schulz said. “Moving forward, I plan to expand my efforts on sustainable design, exploring innovative design solutions that prioritize reusability and recyclability to foster circular ecosystems.”

Velian’s research program targets the design of new materials that contribute to decarbonization, clean energy and quantum information technologies. A special focus of her program is to bring molecular precision into the synthesis of single-site catalysts that transform abundant molecules into compounds poised to play central roles in a green economy.

“The traditional trial-and-error approach, which has been effective in developing conventional industrially relevant catalysts such as the Haber-Bosch process for converting nitrogen to ammonia, falls short in addressing current urgent chemical challenges, such as transforming other small molecules like carbon dioxide into environmentally friendly, valuable compounds,” Velian said. “Synthetic strategies to precisely control the composition and surface chemistry of inorganic materials are necessary to design the next generation of catalytic materials.”

For more information, contact Du at ssdu@cs.washington.edu, Schulz at adriana@cs.washington.edu, and Velian at avelian@uw.edu.