Computer Science student’s research efforts garner national honor

December 02, 2011

Growing up in the Silicon Valley, Brittany Nicholls has always been around computers, but it is her computing research that recently earned the junior an honorable mention in the Computing Research Association’s national awards.

While Nicholls remembers playing computer games at age 4 and beginning to use a computer in fourth grade, her high school in San Jose didn’t offer computer science and she really didn’t get serious about studying computer science until her freshman year at McDaniel.

“Now I don’t touch a computer except to write papers,” Nicholls, who is majoring in both  Mathematics and Computer Science, says, explaining that the theoretical computing research doesn’t involve actually using a computer.

Her mentor, Associate Professor of Computer Science Pavel Naumov, quips that “the grad student’s definition of a theoretical computer scientist is someone who uses the computer only to check e-mail and write papers.”

Instead, professor and student are exploring the abstract concepts of computer science – and their research efforts have now earned a national award.

A letter from the C.R.A. says “this year's nominees were a very impressive group. … several were authors or coauthors on multiple papers, others had made presentations at major conferences, and some had produced software artifacts that were in widespread use. Many of our nominees had been involved in successful summer research or internship programs, many had been teaching assistants, tutors, or mentors, and a number had significant involvement in community volunteer efforts.

“It is quite an honor to be selected for Honorable Mention from this group.”

Naumov emphasizes the prestigious honor by noting the colleges – only four liberal arts colleges – and universities represented in the awards. Winners, finalists and honorable mentions hail from Princeton, Harvard, Tufts, UC Berkeley, Penn, Columbia, Swarthmore, McDaniel and, among others, Cornell, where Naumov earned his Ph.D.

Nicholls and Naumov have been partnered in research since the summer of 2010, when they examined information flow.

“After that summer, we thought we had a solution, but it fell apart when we started to write the paper and realized it was much more complex, so we continued to research,” Nicholls said. The result is a paper they presented in July at a conference in the Netherlands.

Nicholls was awarded a $1,200 national travel scholarship for women to attend the conference in Groningen and says that this will be a good source of closure for the extensive and long-term project. She and junior Sarah Holbrook have won a $17,000 grant from the Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research to continue their research.

Game theory, Nicholls and Naumov’s current topic, was first popular among social scientists and economists, according to Naumov. Within the concepts of conflict and strategy, it examines actions a “player” may take to secure advantageous outcomes, at the loss of the other.  This makes it applicable in an infinite number of real-world situations.

Naumov cites Coke and Pepsi in the advertising game. While competing companies, each must take into account the other’s actions in order to fulfill their own interests. This can also be applied to strategies of government, war, and social intercourse.