UC Berkeley computer science graduate student dies at 26

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 .