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Air Force Office of Scientific Research Recognizes Young Faculty From USC Viterbi

June 20, 2012 —

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) has awarded grants to two USC Viterbi faculty through the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program: Morteza Dehghani, research assistant professor at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and USC Viterbi, and Greg Ver Steeg, Computer Scientist at USC's Information Sciences Institute.

Morteza Dehghani

Selected from a pool of 220 submitted research proposals, Dehghani and Ver Steeg were among 48 young scientists and engineers from around the country selected to receive $360,000 over three years to research areas of interest to the Air Force.

Dehghani’s research seeks to examine the formation of sacred values and to detect their emergence in political or social debates, in hopes of being able to predict when conflicts might occur and to create more complete models of human decision-making that account for morality-based judgments. Combining social and computer science, expands upon his research analyzing the emergence of religious rhetoric in conservative blog posts, as well as the relatively recent framing of Iran’s nuclear energy program as a sacred value for some citizens in that country and the extent to which values imparted in specific religious texts affect the moral reasoning of groups from different cultures. In addition to online data, the effort will involve human study participants from multiple religious and cultural groups in Iran, India, the United States and other countries.

Ver Steeg’s proposal, titled “Bell Inequalities for Complex Networks”, aims to devise tests to unequivocally determine the underlying mechanisms at work in complex networks. Networks, be that of friends or subatomic particles, may have more similarities than conventionally thought. Ver Steeg offers the corollary that it is not uncommon for two friends’ behaviors to be similar. Did

Greg Ver Steeg
they become friends because of their similarity, or did they come to influence one another to become more similar? Using a novel combination of techniques including probabilistic graphical models, algebraic geometry, and semidefinite optimization, Ver Steeg will create hidden variable tests for a wide variety of dynamic and real-world network models. For example, a recent high profile studies argued that obesity can be socially contagious, while another study casts doubt on that conclusion, saying it fails to rule out alternate explanations and hidden factors. Ver Steeg says his work would unambiguously rule out these alternate explanations, leading to a clear view of the dynamics involved, explaining, “Any attempt to understand networks which goes beyond mere description to prediction requires an unambiguous picture of which underlying processes control it.”

The AFOSR Young Investigator program awards three to five-year grants to scientists and engineers who received their doctorate in the last five years and who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research at research institutions across the United States. The program aims to foster creative basic research in science and engineering; enhance early career development of outstanding young investigators; and increase opportunities for the young investigator to recognize the Air Force mission and related challenges in science and engineering.