Carnegie Mellon University
April 27, 2020

Christopher Cox Receives Graduate Student Research Award

By Ben Panko

Mathematical Sciences Ph.D. candidate Christopher Cox received the 2020 Guy C. Berry Graduate Research Award.

"He is one of two or three best graduate students in Discrete Mathematics that I have seen in the department in my nearly eight years here," wrote Boris Bukh, associate professor of mathematical sciences and Cox's major professor, in nominating him for the award.

Describing him as driven and independent, Bukh highlighted the fact that Cox has written five papers as a graduate student, compared to the average of one to three that a mathematical sciences student produces on their way to getting a Ph.D.

"In a nutshell, Chris is one of the most brilliant young combinatorialists that I have encountered over my thirty years of activity in this area," wrote Ron Holzman, a professor of mathematics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, to support the nomination. Cox worked with Holzman in 2018 after receiving a grant allowing him to travel to Israel and collaborate on research there.

"My research focuses on the interplay between algebraic, geometric and probabilistic tools in extremal combinatorics," Cox said.

Specifically, Cox has studied problems relating to information theory and coding theory, fields which focus on solutions to efficiently communicating information across noisy channels.

"While passing through a noisy environment, a message may be corrupted: some parts of the message may be erased and other parts may be completely changed," Cox explained. "The main way to combat this noise is to add redundancy to the message."

Through his work related to the Shannon-Hartley theorem, Holzman noted, Cox and Bukh achieved a breakthrough on a "notoriously difficult problem" of calculating the upper bound of the Shannon capacity of a fixed graph.

"Their paper is a masterpiece of applying linear algebraic techniques in extremal combinatorics, and was published in the top journal IEEE Transactions on Information Theory," he said.

Cox's latest research has focused on the longest common subsequence problem, another "notorious" problem dealing with finding the longest sequence of letters shared between two random words. Research into this problem has applications in bioinformatics since it can be used to compare sequences of letters in different DNA strands.

"This paper is a tour de force of probabilistic analysis and shows deep understanding and high creativity," Holzman said of Cox and Bukh's 2019 paper on the problem.

In response to winning the Berry award, Cox chose to express his feelings about it in the form of puns.

"I'm Berry pleased to have won this award. I'd like to thank Boris Bukh, my adviser, and Dejan Slepčev, denominator, for their non-trivial support," Cox said. "Being a discrete mathematician, I'm glad I could count on them. Hopefully my research doesn't atrophy after winning a trophy."