Chicago’s DePaul University computer scientist Tanu Malik receives $500K career grant from National Science Foundation

Tanu Malik, an assistant professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, has received $500,000 career grant from the National Science Foundation.

The career grant is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty. 

Chicago-based DePaul University is considered the nation’s largest Catholic university by enrollment.

The five-year NSF grant will support Malik’s work to lay the foundation for establishing reproducibility of real-world computational and data science. Her project will also increase awareness of the need for computational reproducibility tools through a research and education plan involving scientists, students and instructors.

The NSF career grant is awarded to scientists who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and who can lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

“The number of women who get funded in this area is abysmally low -- so I think it's a big deal,” said Malik in a media release. “I just feel honored to have that opportunity. If I could share somehow that would be fantastic.”

Malik knew she was onto something in 2013 as a research associate scientist at the University of Chicago while working with a group of geoscientists. Spread across seven universities, they were trying to collect and run their computations together, but it wasn't working. Malik and her colleagues created a product, called the Sciunit container, that could align not just the data but also the programs and environments where the information had been created. The geoscientists had been trying to share data and computation for several years.

Malik's system gave them results in 30 minutes.

"They were able to run this tool, and it gathered everything from different machines and made it portable. It became a huge thing," Malik said. She had discovered that it wasn't enough just to share a program code and data, but researchers also need what's called the "compute environment" to ensure that data is being run in the same way, getting relatively the same outputs. Malik likened it to trying to download a new program on your personal computer, but it just won't run. "That's the kind of situation we're trying to avoid."

The solution, said Malik, is to make it all portable -- the data, the program, the operating system -- so that others can move ahead and reproduce research, faster. At that time, NSF recognized the importance of the work with a $1.3 million grant, and Malik moved her research to DePaul in 2016.

Malik's work will also make it easier for researchers to judge whether their own attempts at an experiment are reproducible or not. Her research aims to define the phases of reproducibility in computational research.

Malik has actively collaborated with astronomers, geoscientists, and urban scientists across several institutions. Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Sloan Foundation. She has a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

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