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David Donoho named MacArthur Fellow
STANFORD -- Statistics Prof. David Donoho is one of 31 new fellows named Tuesday, June 18, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Donoho, 34, is a professor at Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley.
He will receive a total of $225,000 over the next five years in what is widely known as the MacArthur "genius award." Recipients are free to use the funds from the fellowship in any way they wish, as the foundation's way of supporting talented and creative individuals.
Donoho said the award is ideal for his style of learning.
"This award gives a scientist a chance to shoot for the clear blue sky," he said, "to try projects that may seem too risky for regular funding channels.
"With a normal grant, you have to know what you're going to do a year in advance. I do research on a project when the compulsion for it takes over. Instead of formalizing and justifying it, I'd much rather use my energy actually doing the project."
He said his first thought about how to spend some of the award is to sponsor a meeting of scholars in his field, including the Soviet scholar M.S. Pinsker, a mathematical statistician whose work has profoundly influenced Donoho.
Donoho has done ground-breaking work in statistical theory and has applied it to a broad range of practical applications.
"He's really a renaissance man in our field," says Jerome Friedman, chair of Stanford's department of statistics. "He's done some of the best statistical theory of anyone in the last five years."
One of Donoho's interests is "robust statistics." He has worked out ways to detect errors in a data base containing many dissimilar types of data -- for example, the blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood sugar and pulse rate of a group of medical patients. Using his methods, a computer could be programmed to visualize each type of fact as a different dimension and to look at all the dimensions from different angles. It thus could detect "outliers" -- facts outside the norm that may be errors.
The same concept can be turned around to solve "signal recovery" problems. In this case, the "outliers" are the desired facts -- for astronomers looking for the internal structure of a mysterious object such as a pulsar, or geologists looking for the blip in earth-scanning data that may mean the presence of oil.
Donoho has been working on another problem of incomplete or partially inaccurate data: how to de-blur an image when there is no way to know how it was blurred to begin with. It's a problem important to scientists who use instruments to observe regions they cannot reach -- scanning the ocean from satellites or reading deep into the earth with seismographs, for example.
Donoho also is interested in computer graphics that scientists can use to display multi-dimensional data. With his brother, Andrew Donoho, and his wife, Miriam Gasko, he developed software for the Macintosh that can be used to rotate data displays to show patterns from various perspectives. The program, MacSpin, was based on the PRIM-9 program developed for mainframe computers by Stanford's Friedman, Mary Ann Fisherkeller and John Tukey. MacSpin was designated the best scientific/engineering software of 1987 by MacUser magazine.
Donoho earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1978 and his doctorate from Harvard in 1984. He has been a member of the faculty at Berkeley since 1984 and a professor at Stanford since September.
Donoho is the 11th MacArthur Fellow currently at Stanford. He is the fifth statistician to be named a fellow, and the third with ties to Stanford's Department of Statistics. The previous two are Bradley Efron and Persi Diaconis.
Donoho won a Presidential Young Investigator award for 1985-90. He used part of that award to sponsor a meeting of statisticians -- in that case, researchers from Eastern Europe, Germany and France.
"All sorts of ideas that had been locked up in Eastern Europe were exposed to us and vice versa," he said.
Inspiration for some of his own work has come from such international contacts. "You have scholars who spend 10 to 15 years investing every bit of their personalities in a single project," he said. "Real progress in research comes not from having many people know your work, but from having a few people understanding your work deeply. This is why small-scale meetings are so important.
"When it really works it's intense, something like the Vulcan mind- meld on 'Star Trek.' "
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