Columbia Neuroscientist and Computer Scientist Elected to National Academy of Sciences

May 04, 2018

Two Columbia professors — a neuroscientist whose work on the visual system could lead to a cure for blindness and a theoretical computer scientist who has helped define the limits of efficient computation — are among the 84 new members elected this week to the National Academy of Sciences. 

Mihalis Yannakakis is a professor in Columbia Engineering’s Department of Computer Science who has made fundamental contributions to theoretical computer science, particularly in algorithms and computational complexity. Carol Mason is a professor in Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Departments of Pathology and Cell BiologyNeuroscience, and Ophthalmology, and a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, whose work has helped reveal the basic processes that guide development of the brain’s visual system.

Members of the National Academy of Sciences are elected by their peers in recognition of outstanding research achievements, and membership is one of the highest honors in science.

Yannakakis studies the power and limitations of methods for solving computational problems. He has characterized the power of common approaches to optimization, based on linear programming formulations, and shown that those approaches cannot efficiently solve difficult optimization problems like the famous traveling salesman problem. With his colleague, Christos Papadimitriou, a computer science professor at Columbia Engineering, he defined a complexity class of approximation algorithms that helped to explain why so little progress had been made in solving certain optimization problems. He has also made important contributions to database theory and computer-aided verification and testing.

Mason studies the brain circuitry of the visual system, focusing on how neurons in the developing brain extend axons from the eye to destinations deep in the brain. Her research has helped to reveal the processes that guide the growth and trajectory of the visual system’s neurons—opening up the possibility of repairing damage to the visual system caused by injury or disease.