Alumnus Lirong Xia Wins NSF CAREER Award

Alumnus Lirong Xia Wins NSF CAREER Award

Alumnus Lirong Xia (M.A. ’10, Ph.D. ’11) has been selected to receive the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) early career development award for junior faculty. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program will provide Xia with $525,000 over the next five years for his proposed research on computational social choice.

“A direct benefit is that the grant will support a Ph.D. student to work on my proposed research for the next five years,” said Xia, who is an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I feel very excited and encouraged by the recognition.”

The NSF’s CAREER award is highly prestigious and sought-after, but the odds of winning are low. Additionally, NSF rules dictate that principle investigators get only three chances to apply to the CAREER competition. Xia won on his first try.

Xia’s proposed research project seeks to use from economics, statistics, and computer science to develop new algorithms “that will enable individuals to contribute towards making better collective decisions.”

What exactly does this mean?

“Classical social choice theory studies how to design and evaluate various mechanisms for making group decisions, but the number of alternatives is often small,” Xia explained. “In contrast, my project proposes a model for computational choice that will be robust enough for discerning between thousands or even millions of alternatives.”

If successful, Xia said his research would “theoretically justify democracy and the wisdom of crowds, as well as improve the usability and performance of social choice mechanisms in new applications such as meta-search engines.”

Xia came to Duke as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science, where he studied under Professor Vincent Conitzer. He elected to earn an M.A. in economics on route to the Ph.D. because his dissertation topic intersected with the discipline. At the time, there was no precedent for this overlap. According to Xia, most Ph.D. students in computer science got master’s degrees in computer science or statistics.

Xia is one of the forerunners of the joint master's program in economics and computer science at Duke University, and he’s been paving the way for computational economics ever since. As a prolific researcher, he already has 60 publications under his belt.

"Lirong’s CAREER award is a recognition of the promise of the interdisciplinary fields of computational social choice as well as economics and computation,” Conitzer said. “Even at this early stage in his career, he has already made numerous important contributions to both economics and computation. In my view, he so very, very much deserves this recognition and support from the NSF.”

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