May 8, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
Scientific endeavors across Georgia Tech are broad, deep, and varied — a fact underscored last week when the National Academy of Sciences announced three Tech scholars among its newest members.
Marilyn Brown is one of the nation’s top analysts of clean energy policy; Randall Engle is a leader in understanding individual differences in memory and attention; and Arkadi Nemirovski has helped shape the field of continuous optimization.
Each now joins an elite group of the nation’s foremost scientists in a historic moment for the Institute: It’s the first time three scientists from Tech have been elected to the Academy in a single year.
“The election of Georgia Tech faculty members from across multiple disciplines into the National Academy of Sciences is extraordinary,” said Rafael L. Bras, provost, executive vice president for Academic Affairs, and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. “We are incredibly proud and congratulate Professors Brown, Engle, and Nemirovski on this well-deserved honor. This distinction is a testament to their significant contributions and an honor that recognizes that critical research happens at the intersection of disciplines.”
Election to the National Academy of Sciences is among the highest honors a scientist can receive, recognizing “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” as the Academy puts it. It has been reserved for just 2,403 people in the United States. Nominations for new members can come only from current Academy members.
“In the hierarchy of scientific acknowledgment, the only things higher are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize,” said Engle, professor in the School of Psychology. “In my wildest dreams, I never imagined it for myself.”
Engle studies the nature of working memory and its relationship to attention control. At its most basic, his work focuses on how people differ in their ability to concentrate on a single task. Understanding these differences helps us understand why individuals’ cognitive performance varies.
Engle came to Georgia Tech in 1995 to lead the School of Psychology. After 13 years, he stepped down to create the Georgia State University/Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Brain Imaging. His work has been influential in social and developmental psychology, emotion, and psychopathology, among other areas. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“I don’t know of any successful scientists who do what we do for the glory. We are driven by questions and are so fortunate to have jobs where people actually pay us to spend our lives looking through the metaphorical microscope,” Engle said. “At the same time, we all love having our work acknowledged and respected by our scientific heroes. That is what this feels like: People who I have read about in my field since I was an undergraduate are saying that my work has value.”
Like Engle, Nemirovski expressed surprise at his election to the Academy, despite more than five decades of contributions to optimization theory and algorithms.
“While I respect my professional achievements, I do not value them as matching the honor,” said Nemirovski, who came to Georgia Tech in 2005 and is the John Hunter Chair and Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
Yet he is credited with several significant achievements in the field of convex optimization — the Ellipsoid algorithm (with D. Yudin), mirror descent, interior point methods for nonlinear convex problems (with Y. Nesterov), and robust optimization (with A. Ben-Tal) — and in non-parametric statistics (with A. Juditsky).
In fact, Nemirovski credited his collaborators with helping him build an impactful career.
“The excellent professional training I got under supervision of Professor Eugene Shilov at the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, and the honor and privilege to communicate and, in many cases, to collaborate with outstanding colleagues — Boris Polyak, Rafail Khasminskii, Yuri Nesterov, Aharon Ben-Tal, Anatoli Iouditski, Alexander Shapiro, David Donoho, Stephen Boyd — their influence made me what I am as a professional,” he said.
Nemirovski also is a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Brown has established herself as an international leader in the analysis of clean energy policies. She’s a pioneer in incorporating behavioral and social science principles into complex energy-engineering models that are used to evaluate policy proposals and to assess opportunities such as the size of the energy-efficiency gap in the United States.
She developed an approach as a regulator of the Tennessee Valley Authority that characterizes energy efficiency in terms of a power plant — in essence, the size, cost, and reliability of the plant that would not have to be built if companies took steps to conserve energy. She also developed carbon accounting methods at Georgia Tech that were applied to the first carbon footprint assessments of the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas.
“Being elected to the National Academy of Sciences is a great honor,” said Brown, Regents Professor and Brook Byers Professor in Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy. “It is also a great testament to the outstanding faculty and students across Georgia Tech, who are fostering the kind of sustainable energy systems and policies that will help the world step back from the brink of climate disaster.”
Brown arrived at Georgia Tech in 2006 after establishing herself at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a national leader in the analysis and interpretation of energy futures in the United States. A year later, she and her co-authors won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III Assessment Report on Mitigation of Climate Change.
Earlier this year, Brown also was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
“Colleagues like Professors Brown, Engle, and Nemirovski are what makes Georgia Tech such a special place,” Bras said. “They are true scholars and dedicated teachers, and they are examples to their students, their friends, and colleagues. We all rejoice with them.”