UC Berkeley computer science graduate student dies at 26

emil stefanov

Emil Plamenov Stefanov, a UC Berkeley graduate student pursuing a doctorate in computer science, died in his home Thursday. He was 26 years old.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in three majors — honors computer science, mathematics and computer science mathematics — from Purdue University, Stefanov went on to research computer security, privacy and cryptography at UC Berkeley. As a doctoral candidate in the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences, he developed a data privacy program that researchers say answers some of the field’s most difficult theoretical questions of the last few decades.

Stefanov was planning to receive his doctorate this year; the department is now working toward granting the award posthumously. EECS department chair David Culler said in an email that he “so hopes” it can be done, though there are certain barriers to overcome.

Though Stefanov attended high school in Indiana, he was born in Bulgaria, where much of his extended family still lives, according to Chris Campbell, a friend of the Stefanov family.

Elaine Shi, a former UC Berkeley researcher, called Stefanov her best friend and closest collaborator for the past five years and said his passion and dedication were both inspiring and supportive, often helping her through moments of frustration.

Although Shi left UC Berkeley in 2012, she and Stefanov continued to collaborate on research virtually. Shi said her conversations with Stefanov would continue for hours and often moved from discussing research to talking about their personal lives.

“He was a never-ending stream of novel and refreshing ideas,” Shi said. “His ways of thinking were so unique and untethered.”

One such idea was his design of the Path Oblivious RAM algorithm, a data privacy solution that earned him an award for best student paper from the 2013 Conference on Computer and Communications Security. Because data encryption does not always ensure privacy, Stefanov developed a program to continuously shuffle memory as it is being accessed.

Shi called the solution “simple and brilliant” and “an idea that people will not be able to surpass for a long time to come.”

Dawn Song, Stefanov’s doctoral adviser, said she admires Stefanov for his accomplishments as a student and his desire to help others.

While in college, Stefanov mentored his former high school robotics team and donated several personal software projects to students, including a web application that allows Purdue University students to search for courses and build their own schedules, which he developed in his free time.

“Emil was one of my very best students and one of the most creative students I have ever seen,” Song said. “He had such a good heart and was excited about any problem we worked on together.”

Stefanov is survived by his parents, Plamen and Paola Stefanov; maternal grandparents, Nadezhda Blagoeva and Kiril Blagoev and paternal grandparents, Anna Stefanova and Dimitar Stefanov.

Although family members are still deciding how to best memorialize Stefanov, a symposium will be held in his honor at Soda Hall called “Remembering Emil: Bridging the Theory and Practice of Cloud Security” on April 26.

Contact Chloee Weiner at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_chloeew .

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  • LordTuna

    I knew him personally. Huge loss to the world. He was a great guy, a bit eccentric, but not a bad person by any standards.

  • Dear Student Community,

    News of the loss of a fellow student will no doubt impact all of us. Your reactions may be particularly intense depending on your relationship with the student who passed, if you have experienced other recent losses, or if it is a significantly stressful time in your life. Most of you will get comfort from your friends, family, religious leaders or student groups. Talking to a professional counselor can be very helpful if you have strong feelings or if you are concerned about your reactions in any way. If you would like to talk to a Tang Center counselor, call 510-642-9494. Students can also be seen on a drop-in basis between 10am-5pm at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) located at the Tang Center. It may also be helpful to read the information on Coping with Traumatic Events and News found on the Tang Center’s website.

    Also, since the subject has been raised, we do want to take this opportunity to remind you that suicide, when it does occur, is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

    Condolences for the students’ families can be left with the receptionist in the Soda main office, 387 Soda Hall; they will be forwarded to his parents. A department symposium in honor of Emil is planned for Saturday April 26: http://www.rememberingemil.org/

    Again, please feel free to reach out to Tang or EECS Student Affairs for assistance.

    Sincerely, Susanne Kauer, Director, EECS Center for Student Affairs

  • mikecohen

    WTF: A supremely accomplished, good looking 26 year old, whom all quoted describe as passionate about everything, and full of life and good cheer for everyone in their down moments, commits suicide? Without putting on a tinfoil hat: Since the work he was doing sounds like something that could seriously disrupt, internet criminals, espionage agencies and the like (all endemic in the part of the world from which he hails), is it not possible to think about the possibility of foul play?

    • JJMMC

      You know nothing of the circumstances. Please be respectful of the friends and family members who will read this comment section and take your baseless speculation elsewhere.

      • mikecohen

        Apologies. My remarks were prompted by the horror of the tragedy.

  • fellowgrad
  • Guest
  • cam

    For young adults who commit suicide, standard journalistic procedure is to avoid reporting cause of death. This is the most likely scenario (reportedly, some other grad students have confirmed it)

    • Keg

      You mean “suicide”, the guy does not in any way seem suicidal.

  • Birgitta

    Such a nice and sincere looking guy – a real tragedy.

  • dbroyles

    He was on my high school’s robotics team and I help mentor along side of him while we were in college. A reason of death would be extremely helpful.

  • Andrew

    Random switch to Prof. Song quotes without any context?….

  • Ragnar

    As a student, I used Mr. Stefanov’s scheduling program many times and am forever grateful to him and those like him who seek to improve the lives of their fellows with their skills. Rest well Mr. Stefanov, you will be dearly missed.

  • Bart

    How did he die?

  • student

    Is his death being investigated? Or are we supposed to assume this was a suicide?

    • GoogIe User

      i will assume suicide, and that his work was all stolen by some nameless thugs …. sickening.

  • sniper74

    No mention of how he died. Very sad day when someone so young and so talented passes away.