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Zack Fitzsimmons secures funding for continued research into voting procedures

By Fran Broderick

Zack Fitzsimmons, a 2nd-year student in the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences’ Ph.D. program has been selected as the recipient of a 2014 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. The prestigious fellowship is the only one received by an RIT student this year. Of the five NSF Graduate Research Fellowships earned by RIT students in the past, three of have come from Computing and Information Sciences Ph.D. students.

Fitzsimmons’s research focuses on computational social choice, specifically to voting procedures. “We look at how the outcome of different election systems can be changed through manipulation (by strategic voters) or control (by election organizers),” he explained. “We know from political science that all election systems are susceptible to manipulation. Where computer science comes in is by creating algorithms to figure out when and where attacks are possible, or to prove computationally that an attack would be difficult to execute.” Fitzsimmons’s research advisor is Dr. Edith Hemaspaandra, a professor in the Golisano College Computer Science department.

Working with Dr. Hemaspaandra and Dr. Lane A. Hemaspaandra from the University of Rochester, Fitzsimmons also published a theoretical study of variants of the manipulation and control problems of elections that was presented at the 23rd International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Beijing, China in August 2013. The conference is considered among the most prestigious international artificial intelligence proceedings.

“Before attending IJCAI, I was able to present on that research at the 5th Annual Graduate Research & Creativity Symposium (GRCS) at RIT and was awarded runner-up for best oral presentation,” said Fitzsimmons. The practice gained during his RIT presentation helped him gain the confidence to present his research to top-tier conferences like the one in Bejing.

“We are a relatively young [Ph.D.] program,” explained Golisano College Ph.D. Program Director Pengcheng Shi. “So, for our program to have earned three of RIT’s five NSF Graduate Research Fellowships in such a short period of time, I think it really speaks to the caliber of students and the research being conducted.”

Previously, Fitzsimmons was the recipient of an NSF-Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) grant that led to his participation in electrical engineering research at the University of New Orleans during the summer of 2011. He is now focused on continuing research into election manipulation. “I intend to continue to study how secure an election system is to attacks through the computational infeasibility of manipulation, bribery, or control,” he says. The Poughkeepsie, New York native’s new fellowship will help support that research through three years of funding, access to supercomputing resources, a stipend, and opportunities to apply for additional NSF grants. Fitzsimmons is one of approximately 2,000 students to receive the prestigious fellowship from an application list of approximately 14,000.