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Left to right: Professors Merve Bodur (MIE) and Nicolas Papernot (ECE) are among the recipients of this year’s Connaught New Researcher Awards. (Photos: Pam Walls, Nicolas Papernot)

Two U of T Engineering research projects have received a boost from Connaught New Researcher awards.

Professor Merve Bodur (MIE) will investigate new ways to optimize strategic decisions for electric car sharing systems, while Professor Nicolas Papernot (ECE) aims to make machine learning more trustworthy.

The annual awards are only provided to U of T assistant professors within the first five years of a tenured-stream academic appointment to help them establish strong research programs.

“It is a great honour to receive this award,” says Bodur. Her research project aims to develop new mathematical models that can reduce the operating costs of electric car sharing services, while also improving quality of service, making the systems more viable and sustainable.

For example, the models can be used to help system operators determine whether it is more cost-effective to purchase parking lots, or instead make use of free-floating parking permits. They also optimize the locations of car charging stations and even the overall size of the fleet.

“We hope that the new analytical methods will not only advance car sharing systems, but also bike sharing, scooter sharing, and general city planning challenges such as the allocation of parking lots.”

For his part, Papernot and his team will focus on developing algorithms for trustworthy machine learning.

“The widespread adoption of machine learning raises security and societal concerns,” he says. “For instance, learning algorithms can easily be manipulated by adversaries capable of perturbing the data that algorithms analyze.”

By designing machine learning algorithms that can detect and avoid such manipulation, Papernot aims to both increase the algorithms’ ability to learn effectively and responsibly, and to help humans put more trust in machine learning.

“Trustworthiness is instrumental to ensuring a beneficial impact of machine learning,” he says. “We strive to design our experiments in a way that facilitates the translation of our research results into practical techniques and best practices.”

Bodur and Papernot are among 56 principal investigators across U of T to share more than $1 million in funding through the Connaught New Researcher awards.

“Supporting early-career researchers as they build up their programs is a key priority for U of T Engineering,” says Ramin Farnood, Vice-Dean, Research at U of T Engineering. “I look forward to seeing the exciting technologies that will come out of these innovative projects, and the positive impact they will have on our world.”

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