Computer Scientist David Blei Wins Simons Investigator Award

David Blei, professor of computer science and statistics, has been named a 2019 Simons Investigator recipient for his work on probabilistic machine learning, including its theory, algorithms, and application. Blei is one of 16 outstanding theoretical scientists to win this prestigious award, which provides $500,000 over five years to support the long-term study of fundamental questions.

It is an honor to have been selected,” says Blei, who is also a member of the Data Science Institute. “The support of the Simons Foundation will be a great help to the fundamental research that my lab pursues.

Blei’s research is focused on machine learning and Bayesian statistics. He and his group develop novel models and methods to explore, understand, and make predictions from the massive data sets that pervade many fields. His work is widely used in science, scholarship, and industry to solve interdisciplinary, real-world problems, such as an algorithm he developed that is used by The New York Times to offer recommendations for its readers. He works on a wide range of applications, from text, images, and music to social networks, user behavior, and scientific observation.

The Simons Foundation cited Blei for “contributions to unsupervised machine learning for text analysis, approximate Bayesian inference with variational methods, flexible modeling with Bayesian nonparametrics, and many applications to the sciences and humanities.”

Blei will use the funding to support all of his lab’s research directions, including their new direction in applied causality. He and his group are developing scalable machine learning methods for inferring causal effects from large observational datasets. This work has applications to diverse fields, such as econometrics, genetics, precision medicine, algorithmic fairness, and the computational social sciences.

The Simons Investigators in Mathematics, Physics, Astrophysics and Theoretical Computer Science programs are aimed at supporting outstanding scientists in their most productive years, when they are establishing creative new research directions, providing leadership to the field, and effectively mentoring junior scientists. Each year, the Simons Foundation requests nominations from a targeted list of institutions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland for the Simons Investigators programs.

— Holly Evarts, Columbia Engineering
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