Newswise — A Rutgers professor who studies and improves the design of algorithms human-made instructions computers follow to solve problems and perform computations has been selected to receive a 2024 Sloan Research Fellowship.

Aaron Bernstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, was named one of 126 researchers drawn from a select group of 53 institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The award honors extraordinary creativity, innovation and the potential to become a scientific leader in any of a wide range of fields chemistry, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics.

“Dr. Bernstein is an outstanding researcher whose analyses promise to open new realms of knowledge that will benefit society,” Rutgers University–New Brunswick Chancellor Francine Conway said. “It is because of his work, and that of his colleagues, that Rutgers–New Brunswick is known for transformative scholarship that serves the common good.” 

Bernstein said he has long loved math, majoring in the subject as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both of Bernstein’s Russian-born parents hold doctoral degrees in mathematics as well as his sister.

“Some ridiculously large portion of my family started out in math,” he said. “So I just kind of followed in my family’s footsteps.”

While still in college, Bernstein started to pay attention to theoretical computer science, which he describes as being “in between math and computer science.” Tied to the invention of computers, theoretical computer science is a far younger field than math, with a history that stretches back to antiquity, he said. This aspect appealed to him because there is a smaller body of knowledge to be absorbed in a newer field, which potentially allows for a faster route to making new contributions.

Bernstein said he was surprised to be chosen for the academic honor.

“Sloan selects people from such a broad spectrum, from so many areas of science – and I work in a somewhat niche area of computer science that isn’t as well known,” said Bernstein, adding he is happy the foundation honored the area he studies within theoretical computer science known as graph algorithms. “I’m excited.”

Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship which can be used flexibly to advance the Fellow’s research.

A Sloan Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards available to early-career researchers as many fellows have gone on to become distinguished figures in science. Renowned physicist Richard Feynman was a Sloan Fellow, as was mathematician John Nash, one of the fathers of modern game theory. Some 57 Fellows have received a Nobel Prize, including Moungi Bawendi, last year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

As a doctoral student at Columbia University and then as a postdoctoral associate at Technische Universität Berlin, Bernstein gravitated toward graph algorithms as his principal research interest. In computer science, graphs are mathematical structures that represent a set of objects, called vertices or nodes. The connections between them are known as edges. Graph algorithms are computational procedures used to solve various problems related to graphs. 

While theorists such as Bernstein study structures that are highly abstract, the knowledge gained from such work has real-world applications. “You can zoom out from any one particular domain of study and consider problems that are shared by many disparate areas,” he said.

Bernstein solves problems related to graphs by devising new algorithms which, step by step, produce the shortest path between two points on the graph. Work that attacks these computational bottlenecks, he said, are broadly applied in industry.

Graph algorithms are widely used in the design of computer networks, air and mass transit routes and social networks. Insights such as Bernstein’s, he said, could ultimately help engineers design the optimal sequence of motions needed for a robot to navigate a set of obstacles, or aid chemists in finding which sequence of chemical reactions is the most energy-efficient process by which to make a product.

In a 2022 study conducted by Bernstein and two colleagues, the team solved an important long-standing problem: devising an algorithm to find the shortest, fastest route through a network, even when some steps cancel out others. The manuscript describing the solution was presented at the IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science 2022, sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and received a Best Paper Award.

 “You’re always asking, for any task, ‘How do I do this using as few basic operations as possible?” Bernstein said. “Even though it’s in this abstract world, it is still about computation.”

 Bernstein said he plans to use the fellowship to fund the work of a postdoctoral associate on a new project.