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Doctoral student receives federal grant for research in algorithms for network comparison

Doctoral student receives federal grant for research in algorithms for network comparison

Doctoral student receives federal grant for research in algorithms for network comparison
September 18
14:00 2023

College of Engineering doctoral student Ali Khan has received a $53,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research developing neuro-symbolic algorithms for network comparison.

The 28-year-old is the sole recipient of the large grant. Khan first applied for the Graduate Research Fellowship as a senior in the department in 2021. After being initially rejected, he reapplied in the first year of his doctoral program and received the email that he was selected as a recipient in April 2023. Khan describes his research as the amalgamation of high performance computing, graph theory and AI.

“All computers are connected,” Khan said. “You’ve got a network. If you want to compare networks, especially how they change over time, to do that effectively is very computationally hard.”

Khan’s work aims to develop a universally applicable tool that efficiently compares wide networks at a much faster pace than is currently possible. Researchers today write separate algorithms each time they compare a network. Khan’s work will create a system that streamlines this portion of the research process.

The theoretical applications of this research are endless, Khan said. His network comparison system can be used by data analysts ranging from social media software engineers mapping connections to biomedical researchers seeking unknown pharmaceutical side effects.

All research funded by national grants must have an application for a federal institution. An issue that concerns Khan is the application of his tool by the military.

“You can’t choose how [the research] is used,” Khan said. “You can only come up with the algorithm, and hopefully it will be used by the right people in the right way.”

Previously, Khan contributed to RE-PLAN, a computer program developed at the university’s Center for Computational Epidemiology and Response Analysis. Currently, he is contributing to another research study which aims to map wildfires. Khan also spent the summer interning at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, where he is still offering remote services.

Doctoral students in the computer science and engineering department get paid an average of $2,200 a month, according to data from the College of Engineering. According to Khan, after tuition, health care and general costs of education, he will pocket over $3,000 a month.

“A major fellowship can liberate the time for students to devote far more effort directly to their research and outcomes rather than having to work multiple jobs — heroically, to my mind — to support their education and research,” said James Duban, associate dean of the Honor’s College and director of the Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships.

Khan said he is eagerly waiting for his first monthly installment and assumes he will receive his first paycheck within the coming weeks.

“There’s definitely a little bit of a leap,” Khan said. “That’s nice. It’s more livable than survivable.”

Beyond the freedom to devote efforts to conducting research, a national grant allows students to pursue their passion project without the bounds of strict supervision, said Sanjukta Bhowmick, Khan’s supervisor and associate professor at the College of Engineering.

“National grants encourage students to pursue their ideas, even if it is not supported by an advisor,” Bhowmick said.

Such large federal grants are exceedingly competitive and the recipients are highly-motivated students, Duban said.

“All such students are passionate about their subject matter, which becomes a part of their personal identities, while most of these students develop holistically, cultivating different facets of their identity, including leadership that frequently manifests itself in helping others,” Duban said.

The sentiment is reiterated by Bhowmick, who regards Khan as one of her best and most dedicated students.

“A main component to being successful is trying and trying again,” Bhowmick said. “There will be more failures than successes.”

Beyond the financial support in developing his planned tool, Khan hopes receiving a national grant will propel his future career plans. Following the completion of his research, Khan said he aspires for tenure at an accredited research facility to advance his research.

Featured Image: Ali Khan, National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, poses at his desk at UNT’s Discovery Park campus on Sep. 9, 2023. Hannah Sutherland.

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Alyssa Fields

Alyssa Fields

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