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Moses Charikar, Kangning Wang, and Prasanna Ramakrishnan win Best Paper Award

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At the ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms (SODA24), the Best Paper Award was presented to Stanford professor, Moses Charikar, and his two co-authors, Kangning Wang (postdoc) and Prasanna Ramakrishnan (PhD student). The paper, title "Breaking the Metric Voting Distortion Barrier," was lauded by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) at the organization's SODA24 event, which is recognized as the top conference for research in algorithms.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Kangning and Prasanna. They shared their passion for research, the challenges they faced, and the significance of this award.

Please tell us a little about yourself.
Kangning: "I’m a postdoc at Stanford. My amazing hosts are Moses Charikar (a coauthor of this paper) and Aviad Rubinstein. I got my Ph.D. from Duke, where I was fortunate to be advised by Kamesh Munagala. I spent one semester at the Simons Institute at UC Berkeley right after obtaining my Ph.D., interned twice at Google Research during Ph.D. study, and did my undergrad at Tsinghua University in China.

Prasanna: "I grew up in Trinidad, and came to Stanford for college where I majored in Math. I really loved the classes I took in Theoretical Computer Science, and had a great experience doing research with Mary Wootters one summer, so I stayed on for a coterminal Masters' degree in CS. It's hard to leave Stanford, so I decided to stay for a PhD, where I'm very fortunate to be advised by Moses Charikar and Li-Yang Tan.

How did you become interested in the topic of the paper?
Kangning: "My Ph.D. advisor Kamesh introduced this topic to me even before I started graduate school. I was immediately attracted by the elegance of the formulation, and was surprised at the fact that researchers didn’t manage to answer some basic and seemingly innocuous questions in the framework. This is probably the research topic that I have spent the most time on, and I’ve also introduced it to many other junior researchers."

Prasanna: "In the initial project with Moses, we spent quite a bit of time trying to make progress on this question, but none of our ideas seemed to work. When Kangning started his postdoc here a couple years later, he was bubbling with lots of new ideas that he and Hongxun had developed. That gave us a lot of new energy and optimism, and though it was challenging to find the right way to put together these different ideas and perspectives, that turned out to be the secret to cracking the problem."

What does this award mean to you?
Kangning: "Our work is in the interdisciplinary field of economics and computation (EconCS) with a young and growing research community. Awarded papers from SODA — the top conference on algorithms — typically are on more traditional topics in computer science theory. I feel that this award shows the recognition for the EconCS community from broader and adjacent research communities. I’m very happy that our work carries this meaning."

Prasanna: "I think this award is a great boost for this line of work. The theory of voting has been explored by academics across diverse disciplines like philosophy and economics, and it can be easy to think we've exhausted all worthwhile avenues. The study of voting within computer science is relatively new, and it can be challenging for fresh perspectives at the intersection of disciplines to gain traction. This award is great validation from the research community that there's exciting work being done (and yet to be done) here, and in the area of computational social choice as a whole."

Any parting words that you'd like to share with us?
Kangning: "Obviously, the work would not have been possible without my amazing coauthors. I was definitely affected by Pras’s glowing passion and impressed by his technical skills throughout the project, and Moses is always super supportive and can often point out helpful connections and directions. This project started when I was at Berkeley, and Hongxun Wu, who was then a first-year Ph.D. student there, was working on it together. Hongxun was also very enthusiastic about the project, and I remember the time when he spent (a large fraction of) his birthday discussing this question with me. I would like to say thank you to all of them."

Prasanna: "I want to thank my collaborators, Moses, Kangning, and Hongxun. I feel very fortunate to have gotten to work on this problem with such sharp and persistent thinkers. I also want to thank the many researchers who built the foundations of this line of work, and cultivated the excitement about this question over time."