Logo: University of Southern California

Yan Liu Wins NSF Career Award

Computer scientist leverages Big Data to better understand the world
By: Marc Ballon
March 26, 2013 —
Yan Liu

Yan Liu, a leading Big Data expert and USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science assistant professor, has received a prestigious NSF Career Award.

Liu, 34, won a five-year $510,000 grant for her research on a new machine-learning framework for time series data with applications to climate science and biology. The award supports the early career development activities of up-and-coming scholars.

“She is one of the most talented and productive young scholars around,” Computer Science Chair Gaurav Sukhatme said. “She is doing some of the most innovative and creative research in the field.”

Liu and her team have leveraged statistical modeling, large amounts of data, and domain knowledge to tackle two of the most challenging areas in science: climate change and human immune systems.

By examining mountains of climate data captured by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies’ satellites and sensors, Liu has identified high concentrations of carbon dioxide in North American urban centers. Preliminary research suggests that these significantly higher carbon dioxide levels contribute to the region’s growing extreme weather patterns, Liu said.

Liu’s Big Data work has also led her to examine the complex function networks of human immune system genes from time series microarray data. The proposed model provides a one-of-a-kind framework to explore the conserved gene functions shared by mouse and human via incorporating domain knowledge into data analysis.

In addition to research activities, the NSF award will support Liu’s development of easy-to-use education software to teach practical machine learning to students, researchers and practitioners.

A native of northeast China, Liu began experimenting with computers at an early age. Despite her anesthesiologist father’s wishes that she become a doctor, Liu decided to pursue a career in computer science. She earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. She came to USC three years later after developing machine learning models at IBM Research in upstate New York.

The possibilities for Big Data are limitless, Liu said.

“Big Data is what’s happening this century,” she said. “From business to healthcare to energy, Big Data is going to have a huge impact.”