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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

A husband-and-wife duo of engineering professors at The U of M get a one-of-a-kind opportunity as they each secure a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Perfect Equation
by Dottie Brown

Drs. Frigui and Nasraoui

Frigui and Nasraoui have much in common; the pair are married to each other and both received a prestigious national grant.

It is unlikely that two recipients of a nationally esteemed award for faculty members might represent the same academic institution. And it is improbable that they would represent the same family. But at The University of Memphis, anything is possible.

Last spring, just as Hichem Frigui and Olfa Nasraoui were celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary, the professors were awarded the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program Award. The prestigious recognition provides each with grant money totaling around $300,000 for a duration of approximately five years. The professors were individually awarded for separate studies.

"It's just a coincidence," says Frigui of their mutual reception of the grant. The couple learned the good news just hours apart, thus "avoiding any unnecessary disappointment."

The honor makes the pair eligible to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor granted by the United States government to scientists and engineers at the dawn of their careers.

The Career Development Award (CAREER) is based on a desire to integrate education and research by granting professors the ability to use all means necessary to provide a multimedia education to their students. Applicants must provide a comprehensive description of what they plan to do with the grant and proof that their goals are attainable.

"You propose a new theoretical idea along with an application in an area in which you are strong," says Nasraoui. "They [NSF] look at both aspects of the proposal. There is an analytical, applied aspect to the study, as well as an educational aspect. One of the challenges is to find applicable research and to channel its findings to enhance education at the graduate and undergraduate levels in emerging areas such as data and Web mining."

Both professors initiated their studies last March, and will continue their efforts until January 31, 2007, when the grants expire. Each scholar-teacher is leading a group of graduate students in research on two very different applications of the computer world.

Nasraoui specializes in data mining and Web and text mining — technical applications used to enable intelligent computer systems to quickly analyze data and make useful inferences through an automated process. In Nasraoui's study, these applications will be used to track Web users and discover user profiles to create intelligent Web sites.

"I develop techniques that try to discover Web user profiles while at the same time protecting the users' privacy," she says. "Our study is based primarily on analyzing anonymous Web access patterns."

The knowledge gained from her study will be used to advance data and Web mining, benefit e-commerce and aid in Web personalization efforts while respecting consumer privacy.

Nasraoui's award totaled $300,081, and will go toward purchasing equipment, providing wages for students and developing new courses. It will also help with traveling expenses that will enable the scholar to spread her knowledge at conferences and institutions across the country. Frigui was awarded $300,040 for his efforts, which he will use in his study of Content-Based Image Retrieval, or CBIR.

"If you have millions and millions of images, obviously you can't sit at your computer and look at each one," says Frigui. "You should be able to have some intelligent way to retrieve the images you want."

Frigui plans to develop a clustering algorithm, which will be able to detect various groups of similar data and then apply it to a CBIR system that will greatly enhance search procedures on the Internet.

The NSF allows applicants five chances to write grant proposals for the CAREER award. Frigui's acceptance came after his third proposal; Nasraoui achieved success on her first try.

"I was worried about missing all of my chances," says Nasraoui. "I never imagined that I would get it on my first try. The award has definitely confirmed that I have been going in the right direction and has made me more confident."

The couple has quickly excelled to this high stature in the science world. Completing their undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1992, the pair returned home to their native Tunisia for two years and married in 1993. They then returned to the United States in 1994 to start their doctoral studies.

By 1998, Frigui had received his doctorate and moved to Memphis to join The U of M as a professor and researcher. Nasraoui taught part time at the University and received her doctoral degree in 1999. The couple, full-time instructors at The U of M for two years, has two daughters, Yasmine, 6, and Sara, 3.

Both Frigui and Nasraoui have had numerous off-campus accomplishments. Frigui is a consultant in computer and electrical engineering and has worked on developing new technology to aid in land mine detection. Nasraoui has recently worked on the development of new "bio-inspired" machine learning techniques that mimic natural phenomena such as the evolution of species.

As for the future, Nasraoui says, "I would like to continue my hard work and hope to use my creativity to benefit my research community and the community at large. I would also like to encourage young women to consider engineering as an interesting and fun career, where you get the benefit of channeling your creativity to solve challenging problems in the real world."

The Faculty Early Career Development program serves as the pinnacle of the professors' achievements thus far in their careers. The NSF recognizes this award as one that will "support the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century." With this, Frigui and Nasraoui are just getting started.

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