UM computer science researcher lands prestigious early career grant

Oliver Serang

Dr. Oliver Serang, a University of Montana assistant professor of computer science, recently was awarded the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty.

The Faculty Early Career Development Program, also known as CAREER, annually awards faculty members across the nation who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both education and research.

Serang’s CAREER grant will total $1.05 million. He will use the funding to address unmet computer science needs in analyzing mass spectrometry data.

Specifically, his research team will work to statistically identify proteins in a biological sample, as well as reveal which biological species or bacterial and viral strains are in a sample. The team also will try to identify the makeup of basic molecular ingredients in a sample.

“We often think of DNA and genomics as the be-all and end-all for advancing biology and medicine,” Serang said. “But since you started from a single cell, essentially every cell in your body is genetically identical. The mathematical algorithms we develop are key to uncovering what differentiates a bone cell from a liver cell and to the future of diagnostic medicine, where we develop the ability to diagnose infectious diseases using only a drop of blood.”

He said this approach can be used to learn about chemical structure without any prior knowledge of what’s in the sample.

CAREER grants are highly prestigious awards that provide foundational support to early career faculty who have the potential to serve as role models in research and education. Such awards enable a lifetime of leadership in integrating education with research. Each year, between 350 and 400 assistant professors nationally earn CAREER grants.

“Dr. Serang is an impressive new faculty member in computer science whose approach to research is highly interdisciplinary – a trait that is essential in solving the problems of the future,” said Jenny McNulty, dean of UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

“His work uses tools from mathematics to develop fast algorithms that often have applications in biology. In receiving this award, he joins the ranks of the top scientists at UM who have gone on to have very successful careers, and I look forward to seeing how he advances the field of combinatorial algorithms.”

The approaches used by Serang’s lab will be used for a new season of the “Exploring Scientific Wilderness” podcast, as well as an intuitive curriculum for teaching combinatorics in K-12 schools. These fun exercises will be taught in Montana schools, and instruction plans will be posted online for free use by teachers and parents around the world.