Regina Barzilay, Computer Science PhD ’03, Wins MacArthur “Genius” Grant

Oct 13 2017 | By Holly Evarts | Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Regina Barzilay, a former PhD student of Computer Science Professor Kathy McKeown, has won a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as the “genius grant,” for her work in developing machine-learning methods that enable computers to process and analyze vast amounts of human language data. Now a professor at MIT, Barzilay is a computational linguist whose current focus is on applying machine learning and language interpretation to oncology. The MacArthur Foundation stated, “Barzilay is poised to play a leading role in creating new models that advance the capacity of computers to harness the power of human language data.”

The MacArthur Foundation cited Barzilay for her “significant contributions to a wide range of problems in computational linguistics, including both interpretation and generation of human language.”

“I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would get this award. I am still getting used to the idea,” says Barzilay, the Delta Electronics professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. “After the announcement, I received lots of warm greetings from my Columbia family, even from people I haven't seen for years. This was really exciting.”

At Columbia, Barzilay worked with Kathy McKeown, Henry and Gertrude Rothschild Professor of Computer Science, for five years. As part of her dissertational work, Barzilay developed novel solutions for multi-document summarization along with new algorithms for identifying paraphrases. Her work was integrated into Columbia’s Newsblaster, a system created by McKeown that was the first computer program to recognize stories from different news services as being about the same subject, and then paraphrase elements from all of the stories to create a summary.

“Regina is the most creative natural language researcher that I have come across in my career as a professor,” says McKeown, a pioneer in natural language processing (NLP). “She is a star from whom we can expect the unexpected.”

The MacArthur Foundation cited Barzilay for her “significant contributions to a wide range of problems in computational linguistics, including both interpretation and generation of human language.” Her research is focused on multiple areas of NLP and machine learning, applying the analysis of patterns and symbols to the interpretation and generation of human language and other areas of artificial intelligence. She has worked a wide range of topics, from syntactic parsing and the deciphering of dead languages to developing new ways to train neural networks that can provide rationales for their decisions.

Barzilay is also interested in applications of deep learning to oncology and chemistry. A breast cancer survivor, she is developing algorithms that learn from data collected about millions of cancer patients to create an overall picture of disease progression, to prevent over-treatment, and then narrow it all down to finding a cure. Using NLP methods, she is creating databases that record pertinent cancer features extracted from raw documents. Using computer vision techniques, she is working on deep learning models that compute personalized assessment from mammogram data, focusing on early cancer detection.

By applying deep learning methods for modeling chemical processes, Barzilay is working to speed up the process of drug discovery, which often takes years of labor-intensive trial-and-error efforts. She hopes to revolutionize chemical synthesis design and development by offering an integrated approach to the synthesis of any organic target molecule.

Barzilay received BA (1993) and MS (1998) degrees from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a PhD (2003) from Columbia University. She has been affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2003. Her scientific papers have appeared in such journals as Computational Linguistics, Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, and Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, and in conference proceedings of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) and Empirical Methods for Natural Language Processing (EMNLP). She is a recipient of numerous awards including the NSF Career Award, the MIT Technology Review TR-35 Award, Microsoft Faculty Fellowship and several Best Paper Awards at NAACL and ACL.