Channeling the Flood

Monday, August 23, 2010


As recently as a decade ago, the challenge in data analysis was in gathering adequate amounts of data to be analyzed. Now the challenge is in making sense of the oceans of data that are being gathered. That’s where Professor Haesun Park comes in.

Park, one of the first professors recruited to the School of Computational Science and Engineering (CSE), is one of the top researchers in her fields:  numerical computing and massive data analysis.

“Now the question is: How do we analyze these enormous amounts of data and extract useful information and knowledge?” she says. “Numeric computation provides an important tool for data analysis, because data sets can be massive and you want accurate solutions fast.”

The problem is complicated further by the fact that some data doesn’t lend itself to analysis using numerical methods, Park says. In many fields, tens of thousands of free-form, unstructured documents — such as email exchanges and doctors’ notes—are being collected, and people need a way to systematically analyze them. She is hoping to help find the way.

Data is everywhere, Park says. But some of the largest data sets these days are coming out of such crucial areas as network security, health care, bioinformatics and homeland security. In 2008 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) partnered with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award Park and four other faculty at Georgia Tech a $3 million grant to lead and coordinate a research endeavor called Foundations of Data and Visual Analytics (FODAVA).

According to the National Visualization and Analytics Center, FODAVA’s goal is to capitalize on knowledge and expertise in mathematics, computational science and intelligent systems to produce new methods to “detect the expected and discover the unexpected in massive data sets.”

CSE chair Richard Fujimoto says Park was a natural for the project.

“Haesun has demonstrated outstanding leadership in establishing Georgia Tech as a leading institution in this area, and she has compiled a remarkable track record since coming here in 2005,” he says.  “She has won numerous highly competitive NSF awards, established her own research program and now is building something much bigger.”

She’s also being recognized for her efforts. In May 2010, she received the College of Computing Dean’s Award—the highest award the College bestows—as well as the Outstanding Senior Faculty Research Award. Shortly after the FODAVA grant, Fujimoto awarded Park the division’s first Good to Great Award in recognition of her efforts and contributions toward CSE being a “great” department. In fact, the award was created to honor people just like Park, he says.

A native of Korea, Park graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Seoul National University in 1981 and received the University President's Medal for top graduate. She began a master’s program in mathematics in Seoul but soon realized it was not what she wanted to do.

“The kind of work I did as a pure mathematician felt too theoretical, too isolated from real life,” she says. “The work I do now provides very foundational understanding of problems. But at the same time, I try to work very closely with the people in the application domain. Theory provides a foundation for applications and applications provide important insights into theoretical work.”

Park decided to apply to computer science graduate programs in the U.S.  and was admitted to Cornell. She says it was quite an adjustment when she arrived, because she didn’t even know how to program at the time. But she learned, and she earned a Ph.D. in computer science in 1987.

She then took a faculty position in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and for two years served as a program director for the Computing and Communication Foundations Division at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Park arrived at the College of Computing in July 2005 to teach and do research in numerical algorithms, pattern recognition, bioinformatics, information retrieval, and data mining. She wanted to work more closely with people in the applications domain, and the School of Computational Science and Engineering was just being created when she arrived. She quickly realized she would have plenty of opportunities to work with her colleagues.

“The College of Computing has a great collaborative atmosphere among faculty,” Park says. “You never feel people are thinking: ‘Oh, that person belongs to this department or that college.’ I also like the fact that the people here are not satisfied with routine solutions. They are always pushing for innovation.”

Park likes to work with colleagues off campus, as well. She is very involved in professional organizations such as the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and is serving as one of two general chairs for the SIAM 2008 conference in Nevada. She also serves on numerous conference committees and editorial boards; she was conference co-chair for SIAM’s International Conference on Data Mining in both 2008 (held in Atlanta) and 2009, and she is on the editorial boards of BIT Numerical MathematicsSIAM Journal on Matrix Analysis and Applications, IEEE’s Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence and the International Journal of Bioinformatics Research and Applications.

For all her varied commitments, Park is most devoted to her research. One of the most satisfying things about it, she says, is being able to shed new light on an established problem.

“I have worked on some problems where everybody thinks the ultimate solution has already been found,” Park says.  “But sometimes I am able to go back and approach it differently and find an even better way to do it. It’s really nice when that happens.”