David Pennock, 34
Predicting the future of markets
How could markets possibly be able to predict things like where a hurricane will strike? In part because they aggregate information well, says David Pennock, who studies how economic theory can be expressed via computation. Pennock’s research underlies not only predictive markets but also the enormously successful sponsored search functions featured on Yahoo, Google, and elsewhere. Recommendation engines like those on Amazon.com also draw from Pennock’s work. Most recently, Pennock designed a new type of market, the “dynamic pari-mutuel market,” now being offered at Yahoo Tech Buzz. Part horse racing, part futures market, it lets people bet on whether a product is a fad or for real.
Matthew Rabinowitz, 32
Giving GPS a sharper image
Inside buildings and the urban valleys of large cities, Global Positioning System technology is often inaccurate or unusable. Matthew Rabinowitz has sharpened GPS precision by exploiting the synchronization codes embedded in broadcast television signals. These codes allow a TV receiver to compile numerous signals into a single harmonious output. Rabinowitz, who cofounded Rosum and now serves as chief technology officer, has developed a handheld device that uses sync codes to calculate how far the user is from the source of the signals and thus determine his or her location. The Rosum technology refines GPS position readings to within a meter or two, even indoors and in cities.
Adam Rasheed, 31
GE Global Research
Pulsing the way to efficient aircraft engines
Adam Rasheed has made fundamental improvements to an aircraft propulsion system based on a pulsed-detonation engine – a technology in which a fuel-air mixture is compressed and exploded as many as 100 times per second. Pulsed detonation creates vastly higher pressures than the slower burn of a conventional engine’s combustion chamber, offering a theoretical 5 percent efficiency gain. Rasheed built a prototype that operates longer and without the oxygen enrichment required by other research efforts. And he was the first to use such technology in an important role: to drive the turbines that are at the heart of today’s jet engines.
Shiladitya Sengupta, 33
Harvard Medical School
Delivering drugs to cancer cells
As a master’s student in India, Shiladitya Sengupta developed an anti-inflammatory gel that’s now sold in India under the brand name Nimulid. During his doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, he revealed how a protein that causes liver regeneration promotes blood vessel growth, and cofounded Dynamic Biosystems to turn the discovery into treatments for chronic wounds such as pressure sores. But a child’s toy – several small balloons encapsulated in a bigger one – inspired what may be his greatest innovation: a nanoscale device to treat cancer.
Sengupta’s drug delivery device, developed during his postdoc at MIT, consists of a lipid sphere about 200 nanometers wide surrounding smaller, biodegradable polymer spheres. These nanocells home in on cancers based on the unique characteristics of tumor blood vessels. The outer shells then dissolve, releasing a drug that destroys the vessels. As the cancer cells starve for oxygen, they secrete enzymes that break up the inner spheres, dispensing a standard chemotherapy agent. The nanocells have the potential both to treat tumors more effectively than existing regimes and to reduce side effects.
The nanocells have proved effective in mouse models of melanoma and lung cancer. Because Sengupta designed them using polymers and drugs already approved for human use, doctors can quickly move them into clinical trials. Now an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Sengupta is extending the concept to treat other diseases.
Francesco Stellacci, 32
Fabricating microarrays faster
Microarrays are slides dotted with hundreds of thousands of different gene segments that help researchers spot particular DNA sequences – making microarrays invaluable tools for the study of genetically influenced diseases ranging from diabetes to many forms of cancer. But current methods for manufacturing microarrays are very costly and time consuming because of the dozens of printing steps they require. Materials science assistant professor Francesco Stellacci may have found a way to quickly produce microarrays for as little as $50. In his approach, a single strand of DNA “stamps” genetic information into a slide, which can then serve as a master template for the production of multiple identical arrays.
Adam Stubblefield, 24
Johns Hopkins University
Unlocking digital doors
Adam Stubblefield has become a champion at finding holes in supposedly secure systems. He proved that an early version of the wireless security protocol WEP was not secure, and helped crack the Secure Digital Music Initiative’s electronic watermark. Stubblefield also helped reveal security flaws in Diebold’s voting machine software – the first serious security review of the electronic-voting-machine’s code, according to Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Most recently, Stubblefield reverse-engineered a radio frequency ID cipher. Yet he modestly notes he’s not much of a programmer and has yet to learn to speak a foreign language. “My brain isn’t very good at many things,” says Stubblefield, who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins in the spring. But his brain is helping keep information systems from being used to encroach on civil liberties – a good thing indeed.
Haitao Zheng, 30
University of California, Santa Barbara
Tuning in “cognitive radios”
At 15, Haitao Zheng stood out at China’s competitive Xian Jiaotong University for both her youth and her brilliance. Today, her work on so-called cognitive radios stands out for its potential to make a promising technology practical. Using software, cognitive radios dynamically detect and exploit unused radio frequencies; the devices could alleviate competition for the ever shrinking amount of unassigned radio spectrum. To be truly useful, though, a cognitive radio must not only detect free spectrum but also select the best frequency for a given function, all without interfering with other devices. At Microsoft Research Asia, Zheng created algorithms that allow disparate devices to “negotiate,” automatically allocating the available spectrum efficiently and fairly. Zheng is continuing her research on open spectrum systems as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.