Srinivasa (Raghu) Varadhan was recently appointed Interim Director of NYU’s Center for Data Science, succeeding inaugural Director Yann LeCun. Arriving at the Courant Institute in 1963 from Calcutta, India, Raghu is unquestionably considered one of the Institute’s most accomplished faculty members, twice serving as Director, from 1980-84 and 1992-94. Gérard Ben Arous, Director of the Courant Institute, describes Raghu as “a towering figure of mathematics today. He has introduced fundamental concepts and tools, and has proven very deep results in many central areas of probability theory.” Raghu is most widely known for his pioneering work in large deviations theory.
Raghu’s awards and honors are many, including the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on scientists, engineers and inventors (2011), NYU’s Margaret and Herman Sokol Award of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1995) the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research (1996) and the Padma Bhushan, awarded by the Government of India (2008). In 2007, Raghu was awarded the Abel Prize, widely regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Two other Courant Institute faculty have also won the Abel, Peter Lax (2005) and Mikhael Gromov (2009), bringing the total to three, a distinction achieved by no other institution in the world.
Why did you agree to become Interim Director of the Center for Data Science?
They wanted someone to direct it for a year and make sure things run smoothly while they look for someone permanent. They asked me and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it for a year.” The administration is really supportive and we have a team of people at the Center for Data Science who are really dedicated, so we’re moving forward.
What is your vision for data science at NYU?
Data science is an important topic these days. It’s a combination of statistical models and computational tools, and we have strength in all these areas. The Center for Data Science has made it possible to bring people doing various things in different parts of the university under one umbrella to create something useful.
Data science has always been present at NYU but it has not been visible because it’s been scattered all through the campus. Now with the external funding from the Moore-Sloan foundations, this allows the possibility for a spurt in growth. The funding should make it possible to expand the activities and become one of the leading centers in the country.
[Raghu’s remarks from a previous conversation in March, 2013 after the launch of the Center for Data Science]
What are your thoughts regarding the new NYU Center for Data Science?
I think it’s about time. I wish Courant had done it a lot sooner. It’s clear, because of advances in communications, that much more data is available, so much data that we’re all drowning in it. And it’s not so easy to make sense out of the data, so if you have a scientific way of comprehending it, analyzing it, getting information from it, that’s a very useful thing to do.
There’s another issue involved. You first have a question that you want to answer, and then you say, in order to answer the question, “This is the kind of data that I need to collect.” And then you collect the data that allows you to answer the question. Now, you have data and you ask yourself, “What are the questions that can be answered with these data?” So the thought process has to be somewhat different. I think that’s why it’s important to have a Center where people from different disciplines come and see what kind of data is available, what kinds of questions they want to ask. They can exchange ideas and see what’s applicable. There will be a whole set of ideas that will come out of this that will be useful.
By ML Ball