Four Computer Sciences professors earn cross-campus interdisciplinary Research Forward 2024 Awards

Quantum computers. Molecular glues. An AI terrarium. These are all ways UW-Madison Computer Sciences professors are hard at work trying to make our world better. Intrigued? So was the Office for the Vice Chancellor of Research (OVCR). In the recently announced fourth round of their Research Forward initiative, OVCR awarded funding to nine cross-campus research projects that are “high-risk, high-impact, and transformative.” Three of the nine projects involved CS professors Mohit Gupta, Swamit Tannu, Sharon Li, and Jerry Zhu.

Quantum computer advances

Mohit Gupta
Mohit Gupta

Computer Sciences (CS) professor Mohit Gupta is the Principle Investigator (PI) for the “Quanta sensing for next generation quantum computing,” with CS assistant professor Swamit Tannu contributing as a co-PI. Gupta has been working on a single-photon camera in his lab for a few years, and this project will expand the scope of these new cameras to quantum computing. 

This expansion could impact “our everyday lives via applications in computer vision, robotics and even photography,” says Gupta. He continues, “I’m personally excited because we are able to work on two seemingly disparate cutting edge-technologies quanta sensing and quantum computing which rely on understanding how nature works at its finest granularity. This straddles the very foundations of physics and computer science two disciplines that I love!”

Swamit Tannu

Tannu is equally enthusiastic about the project. “What excites me the most is quantum computing’s potential to change our lives and answer fundamental questions,” he says. He explains that quantum computers could “lead to breakthroughs in drug development and the creation of new materials, enabling better batteries, electronics, and more. Essentially, the broader research community is exploring whether computers can fully model nature at the level of quantum mechanics, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible beyond the limits of traditional computing.”

Molecular glues in cancer treatments

Sharon Li

CS faculty member Sharon Li, a co-Pi for the project entitled “A novel deep learning platform in design molecular glues that stabilize protein-protein interactions,” is using AI to identify molecular glues relevant to the development of cancer-fighting drugs. 

“Molecular glues can stabilize protein-protein interactions (PPIs) and have emerged as a promising class of therapeutics for many ‘undruggable’ proteins,” she explains. Her field of deep-learning, which trains AI to think like a human, shows enormous potential for revolutionizing structure-based drug design through a deep-learning platform that learns from patterns in chemical environments. This should allow the team to “identify molecular glues for the degradation of cancer-associated proteins,” says Li, and ultimately would help design drugs to fight cancer. “We expect that our deep-learning platform can greatly help other UW researchers identify novel molecular glues to tackle their disease-relevant targets,” says Li. 

She is also excited about the opportunity this interdisciplinary grant provides to explore and contribute to AI for Science, an interdisciplinary approach to artificial intelligence across scientific disciplines. “What intrigues me about AI for Science is its capacity to enhance and automate scientific exploration, pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve in understanding complex phenomena and solving longstanding scientific challenges,” says Li.

AI Terrarium collaboration for the good of society

Jerry Zhu, co-PI for “An AI Terrarium for understanding intermediated and personal communication,” describes the goal of this project a to

Jerry Zhu

“use generative AI (many large language models that ‘talk to each other’) to understand the dynamics that underlie political messaging, persuasion, propaganda, and the spread of disinformation in human society.” This project is a new collaboration between CS, Psychology, and the School of Journalism.

Zhu has been an organizer of HAMLET (Human, Animal, and Machine Learning: Experiment and Theory) talks on campus for many years. HAMLET multidisciplinary interactions between grad students and faculty have resulted in “multiple federal research grants and publications at top machine learning and cognitive psychology venues,” says Zhu. He continues, “The Research Forward project is another example of how intellectual curiosity and collaboration across departments leads to something good for society.”

Congratulations to Professors Gupta, Tannu, Li, and Zhu!