Nan Niu Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

By: Ashley Duvelius

New 50-in-5 faculty member of the CEAS Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems, Nan Niu, receives the prestigious NSF CAREER Award to link the solo and social levels in software engineering.

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple, once said: “Computers themselves, and software yet to be developed, will revolutionize the way we learn.” The Internet and other technological advancements have done just that and only continue to evolve the way we seek out and gather information. To put this into perspective, consider this: Today, Google processes over 5.9 billion searches per day and over 2.1 trillion searches annually worldwide!*

Nan Niu

Nan Niu, PhD a new faculty member of the CEAS Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems, is curious as to how our individual searches/information gathering habits correlate with user searches as a whole on the group level—the social level. Niu recently received a prestigious NSF CAREER Award, totaling $400,000 over a span of five years, to find his answer. As the sole Principal Investigator of the project, titled “Linking the Solo and Social Levels in Software Engineering,” Niu is seeking to understand and improve the effectiveness of information gathering in software development.

University of Cincinnati Provost Beverly Davenport is spearheading a university initiative of which an initial effort is to hire 50 additional CEAS faculty members- approximately 10 each year, over the next five years. This initial investment, labeled “50 in 5,” enables the college to continue its enrollment growth and research excellence by adding high caliber faculty to the existing group of respected educators and researchers.

Software development involves both individual and group activities that search for information artifacts such as code and software development documentation. Niu’s research adopts the optimal foraging theory (an idea in ecology based on the study of foraging behavior which states that organisms forage in such a way as to maximize their energy input/output) to mathematically model the economics of information gathering. He plans to analyze the production, distribution and consumption of information products, such as tags and keywords, by decentralized users operating over a network.

In doing so, Niu hopes to validate the individual foraging models, extending and correlating them to group activities. His objective is to quantitatively characterize the intertwining relationship of the solo and social levels; uncover the limits of the relationship and create optimal solutions within, and even beyond, those limits. Niu’s research has the potential to increase
software productivity, efficiently implement new training methods, and create a formal theory that can be used in further empirical investigations.

Niu explains, “As our society progresses, I’m witnessing a shift towards a ‘networked information economy,’ in which the social norm now involves social networking. We need to embrace this transition and use it to our advantage. Software engineering is now focusing on linking social networking and classical, sequential coding to facilitate how we scavenge for information and resources in the cyber world. My research realizes this new social norm and has the potential to lead to a new economic infrastructure.”

Niu’s research is sponsored by UC and managed by Dr. Sol J. Greenspan of the CCF Division of Computer and Communication Foundations. “I would like to give special thanks to CEAS Dean Teik C. Lim, PhD; CEAS Associate Dean Frank M. Gerner, PhD; Arthur Helmicki, PhD and Head of the CEAS Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems; Tony Seta, CEAS Senior Grant Administrator; Carol Ross, MBA and CEAS Senior Grant Administrator; Chris Jones, UC SRS Director; and Lauren Davis, UC IRB and Human Protections Administration. All of whom made it possible for me to continue my research pursuit,” he says.

Niu chose to join UC-CEAS for its strong infrastructure; the excellence in research and promising faculty; the university’s heavy industry ties and also for its location as the campus sits comfortably at the center of a promising urban life for his family. In fact, Niu’s new position reunites him and his family after two years of living in separate states due to work obligations.

Niu received his BS in Computer Science and Engineering from the Beijing Institute of Technology and his MS in Computing Science from the University of Alberta, in 1999 and 2004, respectively. He received his PhD degree in Computer Science from the University of Toronto in 2009, under the supervision of Professor Steve M. Easterbrook. Most recently, he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Mississippi State University.

Select for Niu’s complete Faculty Profile.