This article is published in the September 2014 issue.

Spotlight on Nancy Amato

Nancy Amato, Unocal Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, has had a banner year.  She is the recipient of two prestigious awards for mentoring, the Habermann and the Harrold/Notkin awards, elected to the CRA Board, and will shortly be CRA-W Co-Chair.  She exemplifies teaching, research and service excellence in computing.

Habermann Award:  CRA’s A. Nico Habermann award is presented annually to someone who has made outstanding contributions aimed at increasing the numbers and/or success of under-represented groups in the computing research community.  Nancy received this award in 2014.  Her passion is involving undergraduates, especially women and members of under-represented groups, in research.  She has accomplished this goal particularly through her work with the CRA-W/CDC’s Distributed Research Experience for Undergraduates (DREU) program and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Academic Alliance.

Nancy has been a key contributor to CRA-W/CDC’s DREU program (formerly known as DMP, Distributed Mentor Program).  She joined the DMP as Director (2000-2003) and has been Co-Director since 2004.  This highly selective program matches promising undergraduate women and undergraduate men from under-represented groups in computing with faculty mentors for a summer research experience at the faculty member’s institution.  Since 1994, roughly 800 undergraduates from 300 institutions and mentors from 100 host research universities have participated in DREU.  Nancy’s tenure with DREU oversaw a large scale-up in the program, with applications increasing ten-fold (from about 50 in 2000 to more than 450 in 2014) and participation increasing more than three-fold (from about 20 per year to 60-70 per year).  In addition, the program expanded from all women to include men from under-represented groups.  One of her early efforts was a successful NSF proposal that funded the program for five years, starting in 2002, with $1.6M.  To handle the scale-up, she developed a web-based system for administering the program, which has been adopted by several other programs, including the Grace Hopper Conference. To increase participation further, she encouraged the mentors to provide matching funding.  The DMP project, in part, led to the CRA-W being honored with the 2003 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for “significant achievement in mentoring women across educational levels”.  A study conducted in 2011 showed that 39% of the DREU participants attended graduate school in computing as compared to 22% of undergraduates who instead had a comparable, but some other, undergraduate research experience.


Nancy has also contributed greatly to the NCWIT Academic Alliance. NCWIT is a coalition of more than 450 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase women’s participation in information technology.  Its Academic Alliance (AA) consists of over 275 colleges and universities, which work together to implement changes in higher education to increase women in IT.  Nancy was the co-chair of the AA from 2009 to 2011, and since then has served on the advisory committee.  While she was co-chair, Nancy set up the current administrative structure for the AA and drafted the bylaws describing the structure.  Drawing on her passion for involving undergraduates in research, Nancy conceived and oversaw the NCWIT AA’s REU-in-a-box project, in which the AA worked with the NCWIT social scientists to develop a resource that guides faculty in developing research experiences for undergraduates.  The material explains the benefits of such experiences and guides prospective faculty mentors through the process.

Harrold/Notkin Award:  The NCWIT Harrold and Notkin Research and Graduate Mentoring Award is given in memory of Mary Jean Harrold and David Notkin, to recognize faculty members who combine outstanding research accomplishments with excellence in graduate mentoring.  Nancy received this award in 2014 as the first ever recipient.  Nancy is a leading researcher in robotic motion planning, and she and her students invented the algorithmic foundations of sampling-based motion-planning and have applied these techniques to computational biology.  She also works in computational geometry and in parallel computing, particularly on parallel algorithms and data structures.  Her honors include IEEE Fellow and AAAS Fellow.

Motion planning deals with finding paths to move an object from an initial position to a goal position in some space.  Nancy’s work has developed probabilistic roadmap methods (PRMs) for this problem.  The original PRM (Kavraki, Svestka, Overmars, and Latombe, 1996) used uniform random sampling to construct a compact representation of feasible paths in the space.  Nancy and her students proposed several novel PRM variants, creating sampling methods that increase the number of samples in the critical areas of a search space that require more accuracy. These targeted non-uniform sampling methods significantly advanced the state of the art in motion planning and other search algorithms because they make PRM applicable to a much wider set of problems, for which they previously were not feasible. For example, they showed for the first time how to apply PRM methods to navigate narrow passages in motion planning.

Nancy has led the community in showing how to use PRMs to understand molecular motions, and in particular, to simulate protein and RNA folding.  Understanding how these molecules fold is a challenging and important problem in biology.  Nancy had the key insight to apply PRMs to this problem. Surprisingly, the only substantive change required was to substitute the collision detection check used for robotic applications with a check that favors protein conformations with low potential energy. This approach allows rapid simulation of detailed information in a way not possible before.  As a result, Nancy’s group opened up a new research area in computational biology.  Key graduate student participants in this project were Guang Song (Iowa State University), Shawna Thomas (Texas A&M), and Lydia Tapia (University of New Mexico).

Nancy has also made significant contributions in computational geometry.  She and her graduate student Jyh-Ming Lien (George Mason University) introduced a novel technique, called approximate convex decomposition, for partitioning a polyhedron into approximately convex pieces.  The result provides similar benefits to those obtained from perfectly convex pieces but can be computed much more efficiently. Essentially any problem that deals with large geometric models, including graphics animations, CAD/CAM, and solid modeling, may benefit from this technique.

Finally, Nancy has made important contributions to parallel computing, both systems and algorithms.  She collaborates with Prof. Lawrence Rauchwerger, also at Texas A&M, on a large project developing a parallel C++ library called STAPL (Standard Templates Adaptive Parallel Library) designed to ease the task of parallel programming. Applications developed using STAPL have been used in three Department of Energy Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program centers.  On the algorithmic side, together with student Roger Pearce, she developed novel techniques for efficiently processing large graphs, such as social networks, that are “scale-free”, a property that creates load balance challenges for parallel processing.  Nancy and Roger’s method overcomes these challenges and has resulted in experiments that achieved a seventh place rating in the 2011 Graph500 competition and additional experiments that were featured in the 2012 Graph 500 list.

Nancy is a remarkably active and gifted research advisor, both to graduate and undergraduate students.  She has built a cohesive research group that has a lot of fun, while being extremely productive in research.  Since her arrival at Texas A&M University in 1995, she has graduated 13 PhD students (six from under-represented groups); seven of these students have gone to academic careers, three to research labs, two are postdocs, and one works at a startup company.  She has 13 current PhD students (seven from under-represented groups).  She has graduated 18 master’s students (ten from under-represented groups) and has seven current master’s students.  She has worked with more than 100 undergraduates and five high school students, the vast majority of whom are women and under-represented minorities.

In 1996, Nancy established and has continuously served as the faculty advisor for Aggie Women in Computer Science (AWICS), an organization devoted to improving the environment, both socially and professionally, for women undergraduate and graduate students in Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M.  AWICS has been a remarkable success. It has received funding from several companies, sponsors distinguished lectures, organizes a professional development seminar series, administers a peer-mentoring program, and more.  AWICS has brought a large number of women to the Grace Hopper Conferences over the years and was one of the first ACM-W chapters.

CRA Leadership Roles:  Nancy was elected to the CRA Board of Directors in February 2014 for a three-year term starting in July 2014, and she will begin a three-year term as co-chair of CRA-W in fall 2014.

About the Author:  Jennifer L. Welch is Regents and Chevron II Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University.  She received her B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and her S.M. and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Her research interests are in distributed computing.