By Ysabelle Kempe
If you ask Dustin Jamner (BSCS ‘20 with mathematics minor) why he was awarded this year’s National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, his answer is simple: He has conducted more research than most undergraduates are able to accomplish in four years.
Since arriving at Khoury College, the 22-year-old California native has worked on three published papers and won two research awards. He plans to begin PhD studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.
But Jamner wasn’t always an experienced researcher and national award winner. In 2015, he was a recent high school graduate who taught himself to code after attending a weeklong programming course in middle school. While searching for a university able to support his dreams, Jamner reached out to Amal Ahmed, a professor at Khoury College of Computer Sciences whose research fascinated him.
Recalled Ahmed, “I told people Dustin was looking for colleges like most people would look for programming language PhD programs.” She emphasized, “Just the fact that he was familiar with graduate-level computer science topics like gradual typing was really cool.”
From the moment Jamner stepped onto Northeastern University’s campus, he had research on his mind. Though he continued to play viola in Northeastern’s orchestra, he took a break from martial arts in order to dedicate more time and energy to research. During his first semester, he took not only the required introductory computer science classes but also enrolled in the PhD course that Ahmed taught. The latter focused on Jamner’s main undergraduate research interest — gradual typing.
Put simply, gradual typing allows software developers to use both typed and untyped programming languages in the same system. Typed languages predefine each type of data (integer, character etc.), while untyped languages do not require variables to be specified as certain data types. It is essential for typed and untyped languages to be able to work together because many companies’ software systems are composed of both. Gradual typing is an intellectually demanding topic that requires a strong background in the field, Jamner explained.
“Especially in programming language research, there are not a lot of undergraduates who can successfully produce research during that time because there is really no grunt work in it,” he said. “If you can contribute, you’re contributing the actual intellectual ideas.”
Jamner has always been an intuitive researcher, Ahmed said, and she has delighted in watching his abilities to express his intuitions evolve. Jamner has completed two research co-ops with Ahmed, as well as one industry co-op at the Cambridge research company Draper Laboratory.
While in the MIT PhD program, Jamner intends to delve deeper into research concerning compiler correctness, which is related to his gradual typing work at Northeastern. A compiler is a program which takes statements written in a programming language and translates them into the machine language used by a computer’s processor. Compiler correctness is an area that attempts to prove a compiler behaves as it should.
“When you compile code down to machine code, if there are bugs in your compiler, then the millions of dollars spent during the formal verification of the source code is basically wasted,” Ahmed explained. “The compiler needs to be correct.”
While his research interests are complex, Jamner’s inspiration is straightforward. He is simply fascinated with the pattern identification and problem solving needed to work with such systems. When asked to explain, Jamner compared the process to playing a video game (although he admits the user interface is much different).
Jamner’s advice for incoming freshmen is to become involved in research in a particular project as early as possible. Students who take on a research project should aim to finish the project during their undergraduate career, he said, adding, “Many professors would love to have more students working with them.” (Ahmed echoes this advice.)
As for his own future, Jamner intends to stay firmly in the world of academia and aspires to become a professor, a position Ahmed imagines him thriving in.
“He would be an amazing professor, and that’s probably what I wrote in my concluding sentence for his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program application,” Ahmed said. “He would be a really amazing researcher and future mentor to others.”