The next big thing: Killam Accelerator Research Award funds early-career computing scientist

Martha White receives Killam award—and funding—to recognize and build her research in machine learning.

Andrew Lyle - 11 September 2020

Martha White is a recipient of a 2020 Killam Accelerator Research Award, supporting her cutting-edge research on machine learning. This field of data analysis and decision-making is closely linked with artificial intelligence, one of the University of Alberta’s five signature research areas.

“At a high-level, I work on systems that autonomously make decisions and constantly adapt to the world around them,” said White, associate professor in the Department of Computing Science. “My primary research area is machine learning, where the goal is to understand and develop algorithms that improve prediction and decision-making capabilities with experience.”

This research is all the more important in our increasingly data-driven society, White explained.“We have an opportunity to significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our systems. This has many potential positives, including producing systems that are more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective.”

As sensing technology has improved, we now have more data than ever before, but using it effectively can be a challenge. White provides the example of a smart heating system, where many heat sensors placed through a building can enable a system to learn how to modulate fans and ventilation to efficiently heat the building. A typical static controller would be difficult to design when managing this much data—but the continual and self-improving analysis offered by machine learning is a perfect fit.

“As sensing becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, we have the opportunity to make our systems better,” said White. “But this can only happen if we develop algorithms that can exploit that sensory information and only if we develop the expertise—people who know how to use those algorithms—to translate that knowledge to real world systems.“

Supporting early-career research

Established in November 2018, the Killam Accelerator Research Awards are designed to address the needs of early-career researchers, helping support this group with targeted investment. The competitive award has a value of $75,000 per year for a three-year term, awards based on the outstanding promise shown by a faculty member in both their research output and impact of their scholarly activity.

“It's an honor to be selected amongst so many great researchers at the University of Alberta,” said White of the recognition. “My research is pushed forward by an amazingly talented group of graduate students. We are a collaborative team, and this award will directly fund several of those researchers, allowing them to focus on these hard and important research questions.”