Thu, May 01, 2008 - Page 9 News List

The math behind everything

Researcher Daphne Koller has used her passion for mathematical theory to help make advancements in fields as diverse as the study of traffic jams and breast tumors

By John Markoff  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

“The world is noisy and messy,” Koller said. “You need to deal with the noise and uncertainty.”

That philosophy has led her to do research in game theory and artificial intelligence, and more recently in molecular biology.

Her tools led to a new type of cancer gene map based on examining the behavior of a large number of genes that are active in a variety of tumors. From the research, scientists were able to develop a new explanation of how breast tumors spread into bone.

One potentially promising area to apply Koller’s theoretical work will be the emerging field of information extraction, which could be applied to Web searches. Web pages would be read by software systems that could organize the information and effectively understand unstructured text.

PASSION

“Daphne is one of the most passionate researchers in the AI community,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

“After being immersed for a few years with the computational challenges of decoding regulatory genomics, she confided her excitement to me, saying something like, ‘I think I’ve become a biologist — I mean a real biologist — and it’s fabulous,”’ Horvitz said.

To that end, Koller is spending a sabbatical doing research with biologists at the University of California, San Francisco. Because biology is increasingly computational, her expertise is vital in gaining deeper understanding of cellular processes.

Koller grew up in an academic family in Israel, the daughter of a botanist and an English professor. While her father spent a year at Stanford in 1981, when she was 12, she began programming on a Radio Shack PC that she shared with another student.

When her family returned to Israel the next year, she told her father, the botanist, that she was bored with high school and wanted to pursue something more stimulating in college. After half a year, she persuaded him to let her enter Hebrew University, where she studied computer science and mathematics.

By 17, she was teaching a database course at the university. The next year she received her master’s degree and then joined the Israeli army before coming to the US to study for a doctorate at Stanford.

She didn’t spend her time looking at a computer monitor.

“I find it distressing that the view of the field is that you sit in your office by yourself surrounded by old pizza boxes and cans of Coke, hacking away at the bowels of the Windows operating system,” she said. “I spend most of my time thinking about things like how does a cell work or how do we understand images in the world around us?”

In recent years, many of her graduate students have gone to work at Google. However, she tries to persuade undergraduates to stay in academia and not rush off to become software engineers at startup companies.

She acknowledges that the allure of Silicon Valley riches can be seductive.

“My husband still berates me for not having jumped on the Google bandwagon at the beginning,” she said.

Still, she insists she doesn’t regret her decision to stay in academia.

“I like the freedom to explore the things I care about,” she said.

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