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Math Professor Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

September 15, 2017
Professor Noemi Petra in a white shirt and black jacket poses in front of a reflective, opaque glass wall.
NSF CAREER award recipient Professor Noemi Petra.

Professor Noemi Petra is UC Merced’s newest recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award, which the NSF describes as its “most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their organizations.”

Petra is the 16th UC Merced faculty member and first in Applied Mathematics to receive the CAREER award, which will provide her with $400,000 over the next five years to undertake an ambitious agenda that includes cutting-edge research and mentoring for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“This is a wonderful accomplishment for Professor Petra,” said Chair of Applied Mathematics Francois Blanchette. “It recognizes the strength and depth of her previous work as well as the potential of her entire research program. At the same time, it acknowledges that the UC Merced Applied Mathematics department provides a fertile environment to conduct cutting edge research. This will contribute to bring motivated students and postdocs here, which in turn will fuel the growth of the department and the campus as a whole.”

Petra will use the award to pursue her long-standing interest in inverse problems governed by differential equations. Though the terms may be unfamiliar, they’re essentially mathematical abstractions that Petra uses to develop computer models of physical phenomena and engineered systems, making them better-suited for prediction and decision-making applications. For instance, her work can help predict how ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise, or simulate the U.S. electric power grid to improve its reliability and economic efficiency.

Professor Noemi Petra, pen in hand, writes on a white board in front a classroom full of students.
Petra teaches an undergraduate math course.

But Petra is eager to branch out. She’s also pursuing research in the fields of uncertainty quantification and optimal experimental design, and plans to use the CAREER award to expand these efforts. But she won’t be doing it alone.

“Collaboration will play a very important role in the success of this proposal,” she said.

Petra is using the CAREER award to enhance collaborative efforts already underway with internationally renowned researchers at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin — where Petra was a postdoctoral fellow prior to joining UC Merced — the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Trier University, and Argonne and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

Petra also intends to work with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center (UROC) to recruit and fund undergraduate students who will work with her on theoretical and computational problems related to the modeling, analysis and simulation of ice sheet flow or power grids. But her educational efforts won’t end there.

“The education component funded under this award will allow me to dedicate a significant part of my efforts toward mentoring and preparing students for careers in applied mathematics and computational science by exposing them to modern mathematical topics,” Petra said.

This is a wonderful accomplishment for Professor Petra. It recognizes the strength and depth of her previous work as well as the potential of her entire research program.

Francois Blanchette, Chair of the Department of Applied Mathematics

Although most people will find adjoint-based first- and second-order derivatives, variational discretization methods, computational inverse problems and Bayesian inference to be incomprehensibly arcane, these are the kinds of modern mathematical concepts that Petra wants students exposed to.

To accomplish this, Petra will create new courses and promote new research opportunities for UC Merced students. She plans to launch a new graduate course on statistical inverse problems, provide short courses on specialized mathematical topics and help undergraduates land coveted summer internships where they’ll engage in cutting-edge mathematical research.

As the first in her family to attend college, Petra understands the importance of outreach to high school students, especially those who lack exposure to the many career options available in mathematics. Petra is developing summer math workshops for would-be first-generation college students and those from underrepresented groups. She also aims to help teachers be more effective mentors to students inclined towards careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“Applying for the NSF CAREER award motivated me to think seriously about concrete future research and education plans,” Petra said. “This award gives me the opportunity to develop my research group at UC Merced and offers support for the educational outreach I would like to pursue over the next five years.”

Petra also expressed gratitude to the NSF and the many people who helped her forge a career in mathematics.

“I am truly honored and very grateful for this CAREER grant award,” Petra said. “I’m also very thankful for the continued support and encouragement of the Applied Mathematics unit at UC Merced and all of my current and former mentors and collaborators.”