Ian Jacobi got his first taste of computer programming back in 1995, when he enrolled in a community college course in QBasic. He was 10 years old and used his newfound knowledge to write a program that could convert Gregorian calendar dates to corresponding dates on the Hebrew and Islamic calendars.
“It was a really simple program,” Jacobi recalls. “My techniques have improved significantly.”
That would be an understatement. Currently, Jacobi is part of a Rensselaer-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team engaged in research on the Semantic Web. He will continue that research, under the direction of WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee, as a Ph.D. student at MIT this fall.
“Rensselaer is the type of community that encourages you to get involved,” Jacobi says. “I have come to value being social, being active, and making a contribution, and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”
A native of Texas, Jacobi will receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science and physics at Rensselaer’s 202nd Commencement ceremony on May 17.
Jacobi’s involvement with the Rensselaer-MIT team is an outgrowth of his work with Rensselaer’s Tetherless World Research Constellation. Led by Senior Constellation Professor James Hendler, the constellation focuses on increasing access to information at any time and place without the need for a “tether” to a specific computer or device.
“As soon as I learned that Professor Hendler would be joining Rensselaer, I knew I wanted to work with him,” Jacobi says. “I contacted him, told him about my interest in the Semantic Web, and asked for his advice. He opened the door to the constellation and helped me take advantage of that experience.”
The Semantic Web is the brainchild of Berners-Lee, who calls it “the next step in Web evolution.” He envisions a “web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines.”
Jacobi is part of a work group that’s helping to advance the Semantic Web by concentrating on Web sharing and accountability issues that must be resolved as access to information increases.
“With the spread of all this personal information on Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, it’s going to be necessary to have some way of letting people control who can see what,” Jacobi says. “I mean, we can list the names of people who we want to see something, but there’s no way to say something general, like ‘You can view this image if you’re a member of any club authorized by the Student Union at Rensselaer’ and then being able to hold people to it. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Prior to joining the work group, Jacobi assisted graduate student Medha Atre in the Tetherless World Constellation with her research on a more effective way to query Semantic Web data. Through the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, he conducted research on astronomy education and presented a poster, “Update on Improved Undergraduate Astronomy Laboratories with a Modern Telescope Control System,” at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January. He develops Web-based applications for Sandia National Labs via a long-distance internship.
What Jacobi appreciates most about his experience at Rensselaer is the combination of academic and extracurricular opportunities.
For three years, he hosted a late-night radio show on WRPI. He is vice president of RSFA, Rensselaer’s science fiction and anime club, and head of operations for the club’s annual Genericon, an anime/science fiction/gaming convention that typically draws 500 participants.
“Rensselaer is the type of community that encourages you to get involved,” Jacobi says. “I have come to value being social, being active, and making a contribution, and I will carry that with me to MIT and for the rest of my life.”
“I would not be headed where I am now if I had not come to Rensselaer.”