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News Release 12-044

NSF Honors Two Early Career Researchers With Alan T. Waterman Award

Harvard's Robert Wood and MIT's Scott Aaronson win NSF's most prestigious award, which will help fuel their research pursuits

Photos of Scott Aaronson, left, and Robert Wood, right, 2012 NSF Alan T. Waterman Awardees.

Scott Aaronson (left) and Robert Wood (right) have been named 2012 NSF Alan T. Waterman Awardees.

May 10, 2012

View videos with the 2012 Alan T. Waterman Awardees Scott Aaaronson of MIT (interview, presentation) and Robert Wood of Harvard University (interview, presentation).

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Researchers Scott Aaronson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Robert Wood of Harvard University were recognized as Alan T. Waterman Awardees at a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State last week. While in the Washington, D.C. area, Aaronson and Wood also visited NSF headquarters, where they discussed their research in talks at the National Science Board meeting on May 3rd. You can watch Aaronson's and Wood's lectures in the attached videos. Also attached are video interviews with both awardees about their research and what excites them about their chosen fields.

The Waterman Award is the National Science Foundation's (NSF) highest honor. The annual award recognizes outstanding researchers under the age of 35 in any field of science or engineering NSF supports. This is the first year that two awardees have been selected.

In addition to a medal, each of this year's awardees will receive a $1 million grant--twice the amount of last year's award--over a five-year period for further advanced study in his field.

"Robert and Scott embody the best in young, bold and talented researchers," said NSF Director Subra Suresh, noting that computing is central to both of their research pursuits. "I have no doubt that these two researchers will continue to have an extraordinary impact on our nation and the world in the years to come."

More information on the awardees and their research follows.

Robert Wood, Harvard University

Wood is an associate professor in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He is founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab which leverages expertise in microfabrication for the development of biologically-inspired robots with feature sizes on the micrometer to centimeter scale.

His team's project to develop Robotic Flying Insects received an NSF Expeditions in Computing Award in 2009. A recent aspect of that work resulted in an innovative fabrication technique inspired by a children's pop-up book. The technique cheaply and efficiently produces devices on a scale of just a few millimeters.

Wood is the winner of multiple awards and honors, including in 2008 being named to MIT's TR35--MIT Technology Review magazine's annual list of the world's top 35 innovators under the age of 35--and in 2010 receiving the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Obama. Wood's group is also dedicated to STEM education by using novel robots to motivate young students to pursue careers in science and engineering.

"I am thrilled to receive this honor and humbled to be in the company of past winners," Wood said. "This award will enable us to pursue novel topics in microfabrication and bio-inspired robotics, along with new application areas for our fabrication techniques outside of robotics. Ultimately this award will also provide invaluable material for our outreach efforts."

"Rob Wood's research is an intriguing example of the growing interplay of biology and engineering, as well as the power of university research both to advance our basic understanding of how things work and to envision potential solutions to real-world challenges," said Harvard President Drew Faust. "We're pleased that NSF has recognized his uncommonly imaginative work."

Additional information about Wood's work is available in his attached video interview.

Scott Aaronson, MIT

Scott Aaronson is an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, affiliated with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the largest Interdepartmental lab at MIT. Aaronson, a theoretical computational scientist, pursues research interests that focus on the limitations of quantum computers and computational complexity theory more generally.

His research addresses a variety of topics, including the information content of quantum states, the physical resources needed for quantum computers to surpass classical computers, and the barriers to solving computer science's vexing P versus NP question, that is, whether every problem whose solution can be quickly verified by a computer can also be quickly solved by a computer.

Aaronson is a founder of the Complexity Zoo wiki which catalogs over 500 computational complexity classes and the author of the much-read blog "Shtetl-Optimized" and the essay Who Can Name The Bigger Number?. This recipient of a G.E.D. from New York State went on to study at Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley, and win best paper awards and honors, including both the DARPA Young Faculty Award and PECASE Award in 2009.

"By illuminating the fundamental limits on what can be computed in the physical world, and the potential implications of those limits, Scott Aaronson has staked out important new ground in computational theory," said MIT President Susan Hockfield, "I am delighted that the National Science Foundation has recognized his dual abilities, both to articulate key research questions and to offer new methods and ideas for addressing them, with the Alan T. Waterman Award."

"I'm surprised, excited and grateful to receive this award," said Aaronson, "It will obviously be an enormous help to me in supporting my students and postdocs, so we can continue our work on quantum computing and the fundamental limits of computation."

For more on Aaronson and his work, see his attached video interview.


Media Contacts
Kimberly Allen, MIT, (617) 253-2702, email:
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311, email:
Caroline Perry, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, (617) 496-1351, email:

Program Contacts
Mayra N. Montrose, NSF, (703) 292-4757, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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