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Math Prof Receives Packard Fellowship

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted November 18, 1998

For a mathematician, $125,000 is a lot of money. That's what Bjorn Poonen will get annually for the next five years thanks to a prestigious Packard Fellowship awarded last month. He was one of only 24 recipients nationwide, all "young and promising science and engineering researchers" lauded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

"It's a great honor, but also a great responsibility," said the 30-year-old Poonen, who came to Berkeley last fall as an assistant professor of mathematics. "With that amount of money I can buy a new computer and new software, but also use it to benefit the department and graduate students."

He's a "bright, young, energetic star" of the department, said mathematics chair Calvin Moore.

Much of Poonen's work involves number crunching by computers. At the moment he is developing computer algorithms -- a series of well defined steps -- for finding whole number solutions to simple polynomial equations. Primarily theoretical, the work might have application down the road, he said.

Other branches of number theory in which he works are more directly applicable to the real world. For example, he has been analyzing error-correcting codes, like those used by computer modems, to find ways to determine which are most efficient.

"Modems send a lot of extra, redundant data over the phone lines so that if some of the information gets garbled it can be recovered at the other end," he said. "I'm trying to find an algorithm that sends the least amount of extra data."

Other real-world problems he works on include searching for better sorting algorithms and finding ways to determine switching priorities on long-distance phone lines.

Poonen, who grew up near Boston, got his hybrid name from his Indian father, who is a native of Kerala, and his Norwegian-American mother. He earned his PhD from Berkeley in 1994 after getting his undergraduate degree at Harvard, and returned to join the faculty after a few years in Princeton University's math department.

Poonen is not the first Berkeley professor to receive a Packard Fellowship in the 10 years they have been awarded. Eleven others from mathematics, physics and chemistry have been honored, including physicist David Weiss last year.


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