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Draper earns CAREER award for research in accelerating digital communications

on 2009 CAREER recipients

The National Science Foundation is supporting early-career engineering research in such areas as cell fusion, data processing in digital communication, and breast cancer screening and diagnosis methods.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Stark Draper is a computer philosopher of sorts, as evidenced by some of the questions he poses to his students: What kind of digital communication technologies are possible and what are not? What are the implications from the way we conceive and design real-world systems?

Draper sees possibilities in new architectural models for digital communications, and his work has earned him a prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

Draper’s research suggests a re-thinking of important classes of digital communication systems. Traditionally, communication systems are designed to handle data as large, discrete and unrelated units of information. However, in many modern applications — including high-quality video conferencing, wireless media streaming and wireless factory automation — data unfurls in a stream. To be useful for real-time decision-making, streaming data needs to be conveyed in a continuous and time-sensitive fashion.

Stark C Draper

Stark C Draper (large image)

“When the current architecture was originally developed, it didn’t matter if an email arrived immediately or ten minutes after it was sent,” explains Draper. “The underlying assumption of the model was that if you needed instant communication, you picked up the phone.”

Draper will redefine assumptions and design models to meet user demands for networks to handle streaming data more efficiently and reliably. In current models, when a computer sends a data packet to another computer, the latter either confirms that the packet has arrived or asks for it to be resent, and the turnaround time can be lengthy. A more efficient “conversation” between computers could increase the speed of data transfer.

Draper has already developed tools to improve this conversation and now is studying how to integrate them into both larger-scale and wireless networks. He is also working with industrial collaborators to develop an application that will test the ideas and algorithms he developed. The applications for the algorithms could be far-reaching and benefit a variety of industries that rely on sensing, communication and control.

“I’ve been fortunate to find such talented and energetic collaborators across the campus,” Draper says. “My research has been strengthened and broadened here at UW-Madison.”

Enabling cheaper, faster and more reliable digital communication is also important for a global society that is increasingly reliant on massive exchanges of information, says Draper, whose interests have led him to join the team of UW-Madison faculty members who teach InterEngineering 102: Introduction to Society's Engineering Grand Challenges. Based on challenges outlined by the National Academy of Engineering, the class aims to aims to demonstrate to students how the work of engineers is crucial to improving the quality of life around the world. Draper will begin co-teaching the course in 2010.

His work with the grand challenges course is only one of his outreach and education efforts as part of his CAREER award. At the graduate level, Draper teaches courses on information theory, error-correction coding, and statistical signal processing, and he is developing a course on large-scale statistical inference with applications in machine learning, signal processing, and communications.

Draper is also working to pique the interest of pre-collegiate students in science and engineering. He was a guest speaker at the 2009 UW-Madison Engineering Summer Program, which encourages underrepresented high school students to pursue engineering and science.