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2014 Data Fellow wins research award to turn theory into practice

RALEIGH, NC – The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has announced that it has selected North Carolina State University’s Dr. Blair D. Sullivan for a $1.5 million Moore Investigator Award – one of only 14 nationally – as part of its Data-Driven Discovery Initiative. Sullivan’s work focuses on transforming theoretical algorithms into practical tools that could be used in fields ranging from biomedical science and social media research to business analytics and online retailing.

Sullivan, an assistant professor in the NC State computer science department, was named a National Consortium for Data Science (NCDS) Data Fellow last November and will finish up that fellowship at the end of the year. She learned about the Moore Foundation award through an NCDS communication to its Data Fellows.

“The NCDS congratulates Dr. Sullivan on this great opportunity to expand her research and turn theory into practice,” said Stan Ahalt, director of the NCDS Steering Committee. “This is exactly what we hope NCDS Data Fellowships will enable for talented faculty—new opportunities to move their research forward and answer important data science questions.”

“This award will enable us to drastically advance the understanding of intermediate-scale structure in massive, real-world graph data and design targeted, efficient algorithms based on ideas from theoretical computer science,” says Sullivan, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State. Graphs, in the context of computer science, are used to model discrete entities that are connected, such as neurons in the brain or individual users on Facebook.

“Unfortunately, structure-based algorithms have mainly been studied from a theoretical point of view, and need significant improvement if we want to use them in practical tools,” Sullivan says. “For example, we’ll need to adapt the framework to deal with the uncertainty present in real-world data.”

Sullivan’s work is based on a field of study called parameterized complexity. These algorithms leverage a graph’s structure to solve time-consuming problems much more quickly.

“The biggest challenge is that the algorithms are theoretical,” Sullivan adds. “My group is working to put those theories into practice.”

Sullivan’s award from the Moore Foundation is part of a $60 million, five-year Data-Driven Discovery Initiative within the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Science Program. The initiative – one of the largest privately funded data science programs of its kind – is committed to enabling new types of scientific breakthroughs by supporting interdisciplinary, data-driven researchers.

“Science is generating data at unprecedented volume, variety and velocity, but many areas of science don’t reward the kind of expertise needed to capitalize on this explosion of information,” says Chris Mentzel, program director of the Data-Driven Discovery Initiative.

“Many areas of science are currently data-rich, but discovery-poor,” says Dr. Vicki Chandler, chief program officer for science at the Moore Foundation. “The Moore Investigator Awards in Data-Driven Discovery aim to reverse that trend by enabling researchers to harness the unprecedented diversity of scientific data now available and answer new kinds of questions.”

For more information about the Moore Investigators in Data-Driven Discovery, please visit http://www.moore.org/newsroom/press-releases/2014/10/02/the-gordon-and-betty-moore-foundation-selects-awardees-for-$21-million-in-grants-to-stimulate-data-driven-discovery.

For more on the NCDS Data Fellows program, including the Call for Proposals for 2015 Fellows, see www.datascienceconsortium.org/data-fellows.