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Lafayette senior Alex Balan of Bucharest, Romania, is one of only ten undergraduates nationally to receive a Microsoft Scholarship Award, recognizing him as one of the very top computer science students in the United States.

This is the second consecutive year that a Lafayette student has won the prestigious honor. Last year, Marquis Scholar Matthew Patton ’02 of Los Alamos, N.Mex., who graduated with honors in computer science, was one of only eight undergraduates nationally to receive the award.

The Microsoft scholarship program is administered by Upsilon Pi Epsilon, the international honor society for the computer sciences. The annual awards are worth $1,000.

“Lafayette faculty are very enthusiastic to work with students, which is a unique aspect of academic life here,” says Balan. “Lafayette has been generous in providing the facilities and funds for . . . research. This college has played a positive and active role and is very inspiring to a young person who is going to face all the life challenges arising in the real world.”

A dual degree student in B.S. computer science and A.B. mathematics-economics, Balan was invited to join Phi Beta Kappa as a junior last spring. He maintains a 4.0 grade point average in both majors and a 3.98 cumulative GPA.

Balan also was a member of a Lafayette student team that took second place in last month’s 13th annual Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Math Contest. In addition to fielding the winning student team for the third consecutive year, Lafayette swept the top three places, and four of the top five overall. Hosted by Moravian College, the competition included a record 55 students, who made up 16 teams representing five institutions.

Balan is conducting a year-long research project to improve analysis of computer network reliability. Guided by Chun Wai Liew, assistant professor of computer science, and Lorenzo Traldi, Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Mathematics, he is taking on the challenge in pursuit of departmental honors in computer science.

“In today’s world, computers are very rarely stand-alone,” says Balan. ‘’They are often connected to networks that can vary in size from small to gigantic. More than that, the need for reliable inter-computer communication has increased dramatically lately.”

Balan also is working in an independent study led by Gary Gordon, professor of mathematics, on generating functions, which are used to solve a variety of combinatorial problems.

‘’We started by understanding the basic ‘philosophy’ of the generating functions — how they work and why they work,” he says. ‘’Doing more and more examples, I began to realize the power of this method, which is able to solve otherwise impossible problems in a matter of a couple of lines. It seemed a very counterintuitive method at first, but it was able to generate amazing results. Professor Gordon is an extraordinary resource and he allows this course to drift in whatever direction benefits me the most.”

Lafayette’s computer science department helps students by providing individual guidance and one-on-one attention from faculty, notes Balan.

‘’You have the opportunity to work on real projects for businesses outside Lafayette, and therefore gain some hands-on experience,” he says. ‘’You also can do research or independent study on any computer-related topic, even if it’s outside the curriculum. There’s also the possibility of getting involved in joint projects with other departments.”

Balan also cites ‘’the fun of computer programming and the challenge of devising crafty/efficient algorithms,” as well as the opportunity to participate in computer programming contests as benefits of majoring in computer science at Lafayette.

Last year, Balan and two other Lafayette students were among 11 undergraduates to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates at Lafayette. Among a field of more than 150 applicants, participants came from Lafayette, Princeton, Cornell, Brown, Northwestern, Bard, Belmont, Davidson, and Richmond to engage in eight weeks of intensive summer research in mathematics.

Balan also has worked the past two summers as an EXCEL Scholar with Traldi in a project relating to clutters — a collection of sets, none of which is a subset of any other — and their structure. The research has applications, most notably, for communication networks. The work resulted in a co-authored paper submitted to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication Transactions on Reliability. In Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend.

‘’When I joined this research program, it was because I was confident that I could combine both my mathematical and computer programming skills,” says Balan, who also has met with Traldi to discuss the project during the school year. ‘’The interdisciplinary research ranged from topics like network reliability and graphs to set theory, clutters, and Boolean products. Such research gives me a chance to practice my knowledge solving real-life problems. It broadens my horizons and exposes me to the real world.”

Last spring, Balan was part of a three-student Lafayette team that placed in the top echelon of the 62nd William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, an annual international contest renowned for its difficulty. Lafayette finished No. 54, placing in the top 12 percent of the 453 participating institutions from the United States and Canada.

Last year, he joined two other Lafayette students in competing in the Mid-Atlantic regional of the Association of Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Balan has been a recipient of Lafayette’s Benjamin F. Barge Mathematical Prize for three consecutive terms and is a two-time winner of the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Mathematics Contest.

Balan is president of Lafayette’s student chapter of Upsilon Pi Epsilon and vice president of its chapters of Association for Computing Machinery and Pi Mu Epsilon. He also is a member of Lafayette’s chapter of Omicron Delta Upsilon, the economics honor society, as well as Mathematics Problem Solving Group and International Student Association, for which he once served as travel coordinator. He is a resident adviser and a champion in two intramural competitions. Balan, who has learned eight programming languages, also is a tutor and laboratory proctor for the computer science and mathematics departments. He has worked as a fitness assistant at Kirby Sports Center and as an employee of the Instructional Technology department.

Categorized in: Academic News