2 UC Berkeley alumni named 2018 MacArthur Fellows

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UC Berkeley alumni Deborah Estrin and Allan Sly were named as recipients of the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship — the so-called “genius” awards — Oct 4.

Estrin, a computer scientist, and Sly, a mathematician, were each recognized for their potential to shape the future in their respective fields and were granted $625,000 with no strings attached, according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

Estrin, who creates open-source applications and platforms, received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley in 1980. Sly, who works to solve long-standing mathematical problems in statistical physics and computer science, received his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 2009 in statistics and served as a faculty member in the department from 2011 to 2016.

They are among 25 people from diverse fields who have demonstrated “exceptional creativity” and have a track record of significant achievement.

Sly, now a professor at Princeton University in the mathematics department, recounted how he received a call in his office and was excited to hear from the MacArthur Foundation.

“It was a huge surprise and a great honor,” Sly said. “I didn’t have any inkling of it beforehand.”

Sly said his interest in discrete probability theory and its applications could be traced back to his doctoral times in Berkeley. He said he first learned about random modeling in a class at UC Berkeley — Sly later made a key discovery in constructing embeddings of random sequences, according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

“One thing I’d say is that a lot of the work that’s recognized in the award was while I was at Berkeley,” Sly said. “I had very productive years both as a student and faculty.”

Estrin is now associate dean and professor of computer science at Cornell Tech. Estrin was among the first to recognize the potential of using mobile data to gain insights into users’ health — she calls data generated by fitness trackers, GPS and other online tools “small data.”

“I feel extremely grateful, honored and humbled, particularly when I look at all the other past and current award winners,” Estrin said in an email.

Estrin made fundamental contributions to improving the “scalability and broader utility of the emerging internet” through her work on network routing, according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

“She is exactly the kind of person the award was designed for,” said Scott Shenker, Estrin’s colleague and campus professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “She takes tremendous intellectual risks in her work, striving to do something deep and important.”

Shenker added that Estrin is a “genius in finding what’s important.”

Elchanan Mossel, a professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former campus professor, said he had the pleasure of being Sly’s adviser at UC Berkeley.

“What always amazed me is how fast he is in doing that, Mossel said in an email. “I think for many of the problems he solved, he figured out he can do it within a couple of hours or a couple of days of starting thinking of the problem.”

Contact Sarah Chung at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sarahchungdc.