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