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When his fingertips touch the keys of the piano, Nassib Nassar tells a story. As he plays, he listens — paying attention to the details of the story, making sure the truth is being conveyed. He takes the same care when his fingertips touch the keys of a computer.

Nassar is a pianist and also a computer scientist at UNC’s Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. He recently won the 2014 American Prize in Piano Performance.

The American Prize, a series of new non-profit national competitions in the performing arts, provides cash awards, professional adjudication and international recognition for outstanding recorded performances by individuals or ensembles in the United States. To enter the competition, pianists submit an application and a performance recording of at least 30 minutes.

“I am deeply thankful for this great honor,” Nassar said. “The American Prize has been awarded to a number of internationally acclaimed pianists, and I am delighted to receive the recognition.  It has also raised awareness of my piano work.”

Nassar’s passion for piano and technology began as a child, both interests sparked by his father. A talented musician, Nassar’s dad often played the piano at home, took his son to concerts and talked with him about music and pianists, he said. His father also gave him his first programmable calculator.

While attending Jordan High School in Durham, Nassar studied physics and computer science and also took piano lessons from UNC associate professor Francis Whang, now retired. Whang described Nassar, self-taught until these lessons, as “highly intelligent.”

At age 27, Nassar performed the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven in chronological order in a series of seven recitals.  He has recorded multiple sonatas by Beethoven, as well as pieces from Brahms and Bach, all of which are available on his website,

“He has matured greatly,” Whang said. “Always had a sense of what he wanted.”

What he wanted was a life that included both keyboards. “Music affected me very strongly from a young age, so that I never had a choice of not being a musician,” Nassar said. “I got into computer science only because it seemed interesting and fun, and it turned out that it has led to many great experiences.”

Nassar has excelled as a computer scientist. He is best known as the architect of the Isearch text retrieval system, which he developed while working on a grant funded by the National Science Foundation. Isearch has been used on hundreds of public search sites, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, NASA and the Federal Geographic Data Clearinghouse.

“Nassib is careful and insightful in both professions,” said Paul Jones, clinical professor of journalism and mass communication at UNC. He worked with Nassar while he was an undergraduate in developing computer software. “He understands how something ought to be done and can do it. He is a careful and inventive creator. He expresses himself through the creation of music and software.”

By Karla Barrios, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published November 6, 2014