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USC Viterbi professor wins NSF Career Award

Yan Liu uses big data to find the mechanisms governing how people interact on the social networks. (Photo/Brian Morri)

Yan Liu, a leading big data expert and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has received the National Science Foundation Career Award, which recognizes the excellence of up-and-coming scholars.

Liu won a five-year $510,000 grant for her research on the environment, media and biology.

“She is one of the most talented and productive young scholars around,” Professor 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 and sophisticated algorithms to better understand climate change, the new media’s growing influence and human gene networks.

By examining weather data captured by NASA and other agencies’ satellites and sensors, Liu has identified high concentrations of carbon dioxide in North American urban centers. Preliminary research suggested that these increased levels of carbon dioxide contributed to the region’s growing extreme weather patterns, Liu said.

Liu’s work has also led her to examine Twitter’s growing influence on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and other blue-chip publications. Her findings: About half the tweets that get picked up by the mainstream media come from the entertainment world, 30 percent from sports, 10 percent from politics and the rest from other sources.

“We want to use big data to find the mechanisms governing how people interact on the social networks and how social networks change the way people communicate,” she said.

Liu also is employing big data tools to better understand how and when human genes interact. Specifically, she wants to place genes in different sequences and environments to ascertain their impact on the immune and other systems.

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

The possibilities for big data are limitless, Liu said.

“Big data is what’s happening this century,” she said. “From business to health care to energy, big data is going to have a huge impact.”

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