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Student Funding Spotlight: Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS)

Funding Spotlight: Joshua Daymude — From ARCS award recipient to ASU faculty

Name: Joshua J. Daymude

Website(s): About Joshua Daymude, Google Scholar

Social media handles: Twitter, Mastodon 

Please introduce yourself, where are you from?

My name is Josh Daymude. I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence with a joint appointment in the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security, and Society. I grew up in Lebec, a rural mountain town in Southern California, and have lived in Tempe for the last decade.

Where did you study before ASU?

I have done all of my degrees at ASU. For my bachelor degree, I completed a double major in Computer Science and Mathematics at ASU in 2016. In 2021, I completed a PhD in Computer Science under the advice of Professor Andréa W. Richa and spent one year as a postdoctoral scholar working with Professor Stephanie Forrest at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Throughout that time, I spent summers and visiting scholar semesters at NASA JPL, Google, local startups, and Georgia Tech.

What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?

The last eight years of research have been one long surprise. There were so many things about academia I did not know (no one in my family had gone to graduate school before). Of course, I am grateful to be a part of the endlessly fascinating science. It may be obvious, but it took me a long time to realize that universities aren't faceless institutions — they are people all the way down, and those people are fascinating!

Congratulations on your faculty mentor appointment! Please tell us about your teaching and methodology.

My tenure is in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, where I teach upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses in algorithms and theory. Essentially, I’m a "math person" —though I dislike that term because it sounds exclusive. I teach my students theoretical computer science and mathematics as an exercise in exploration: Are we comfortable trying things and failing? Can we brave paths with unknown destinations? How do we thrive in uncertainty and delight in figuring things out? These are widely relatable questions to the human experience. Mathematics is more than churning out formulae and numbers; my happiest times teaching are the “a-ha!” moments when my students see this truth.

What types of problems do you work on and why do you think they’re important?

Broadly, I study distributed systems that comprise individuals that move around and interact with each other; this covers everything from biological collectives (like the immune system or social insects) to engineered collectives (like swarm robotics or the Internet). I use theoretical computer science and mathematics to model and analyze how these collectives work, what disrupts their behavior, and how powerful any individual has to be for the whole system to work as intended. This is a two-way street between the biological/social sciences and engineering: I learn how natural collectives operate to engineer better collectives (e.g., in robots), and I use analytical techniques from computer science and mathematics to reveal new insights about the natural collectives. This broad lens lets me tackle all kinds of interesting problems, from programmable matter to Internet censorship to immunology to the microbiome to political polarization.

What are some of the approaches and methods you use in your work/research?

At the risk of offending real epistemologists out there, I like to tell my students that there are three broad forms of “scientific knowledge” (at least in the problems I work on): empiricism, modeling and simulation, and theoretical analysis. Empiricism is about measurement: data is collected about a set of interests (e.g., via surveys, physical experiments, natural experiments, etc.), and that data is analyzed for patterns or correlations. I do the least of this kind of work. Modeling and simulation involve making some assumptions about how a system works and programming a computer to investigate the consequences of those assumptions. This isn’t my bread and butter, but it’s often a tool to support my newer biological and social science investigations. Lastly, theoretical analysis uses mathematics to prove logical guarantees about a system based on some assumptions — this is my expertise. Typically, I use graph theory, geometry, probability theory, and stochastic processes applied to randomized and distributed algorithms.

What are some of the challenges you face in your work/research?

I don’t think any scientific progress follows a linear path, but that’s especially true in theoretical work like mine. It’s as if my problem is surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable wall and our team has to find a way in. Once we’re in, it’s usually just a matter of writing everything down cleanly and double-checking that it works. But finding a way in, even on problems that end up having understandable solutions, can take months of sitting at a whiteboard and talking through ideas together; research requires patience.

What organizations or individuals outside of ASU do you interact and network with?

I’m very grateful for widely collaborative and interdisciplinary scientific training. During my PhD, I participated in research funded by a DoD MURI award that combined computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, control theorists, and materials scientists from ASU, Georgia Tech, MIT, and Northwestern. Aside from my PhD advisor Professor Andréa W. Richa, my longest collaboration was with distributed computing theorist Professor Christian Scheideler at Paderborn University in Germany. Since my postdoc, I’ve been interacting with the Santa Fe Institute and starting new collaborations there.

What do you like best about this work?

I love the challenge and payoff of bringing computer science together with other fields. I think of computer science as the energetic, blustering, creative little sibling in the broader scientific family. We can get into quite a bit of trouble on our own as we grow up, but we already have new perspectives and powerful tools to lend to our older siblings. I love the challenge of translating other people's problems into a form my tools can handle — and the humbling opportunity of learning what I got wrong the first time (or second time, or the third). I guess it’s also worth mentioning how much I love the people I work with in interdisciplinary work. I can't get enough of the openness and energy of doing something new.

How have you interacted with the Graduate College? Is there an event, initiative or funding opportunity that helped you along the way?

The Graduate College was a dependable resource throughout my PhD, most importantly in connecting me with the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, which funded me three years in a row. I tell every PhD student I know about the ARCS Scholarship and the wonderful people behind it. 

What would you like to say to the donors who have helped fund your education?

Receiving the ARCS award was a turning point in my PhD education. Just before I got the scholarship, I’d been questioning my research’s relevance and had been entertaining leaving for the industry. Was academia the right vehicle for the kind of impact I wanted to have on the world? Was I helping anyone? Who cared about the research I was pouring my life into ... for five years? I was blown away by the enthusiasm of Mr. Johnston and the other ARCS donors at the first awards dinner. Here was a room full of real people, from outside the bubble of academia, wanting to know about our research, our theories and our hopes for what could be. I will never forget how encouraging that experience was.

I just want to reiterate my deep gratitude for Mr. and Mrs. Johnston’s three-year support of my PhD education through the ARCS Foundation. I’m very thankful that I can now spend my career as a professor at ASU, continuing their investment in the students and community being built here.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field or going into an academic career?

As I said earlier, you might think research is primarily about science, but it’s people all the way down. It’s people teaching your classes. It’s people reviewing your scientific papers. Your PhD advisor will have a bigger influence on those five or more years of your life than almost anyone else. Find people who inspire, excite, and support you, both in and outside academia, or graduate school will be rough. Look for quality labs and professors who are generous (with their time, their advice, etc.) and where other students seem genuinely happy and valued. Resist having your humanity reduced to your productivity or “talent.”


Learn more about the ARCS award


Marjani Hawkins