University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: SPH Statistician Named One of Forbes’ Rising Stars

SPH Statistician Named One of Forbes’ Rising Stars



What are the odds? A University of Washington statistician has made Forbes' list of top young researchers transforming science and health – for the second year in a row.

Daniela Witten

Daniela Witten, assistant professor of biostatistics at the UW School of Public Health, was named to Forbes' "30 Under 30" list for 2012 in the field of science and healthcare. She was named to the 2011 list for science and innovation.

"It was a fun surprise this year," Witten said of the repeat distinction. "It's definitely an honor."

Witten, 28, was recognized for her work developing statistical tools that can analyze large sets of data such as the human genome, work that could lead to better treatment and prevention of disease.

"Witten became a professor at 26, and is now developing machine learning programs that convert vast amounts of data into useful knowledge," the magazine said in its online report. The "30 Under 30" list will also appear in the Jan. 21 Forbes magazine.

The potential varied uses of Witten's research include personalizing cancer therapy, understanding genomes, recommending products to shoppers and predicting election results.

"One of the things that's really cool about machine learning is that there is an incredibly broad set of tools that can be applied in a wide set of areas," Witten said. The techniques used in health sciences aren't much different from those in other fields, she said, such as getting computers to understand human speech or tools that Google uses to recommend search results.

"The question is how can we teach a computer to do something useful with this data?" Witten said.

Witten earned a PhD in statistics from Stanford University in 2010 before joining the UW School of Public Health. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the UW Department of Statistics. Witten grew up in a family of scientists and planned to major in foreign languages but ended up double-majoring in math and biology. In 2011, she received a prestigious five-year Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Witten says she is completing an "entry-level" textbook with colleagues from Stanford University and the University of Southern California that seeks to make machine learning techniques more accessible to those who don't have a PhD in the field.

Forbes calls Witten and the other standouts – 30 people each in 15 categories from art and style to sports and technology – "tomorrow's brightest stars." All are under 30 years of age.

The total list in all fields includes singers Adele, 24, and Justin Bieber, 18; Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp, 26; Miami Heat forward LeBron James, 28; and Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, 28. Forbes has run the listing for two years now, choosing the winners with help from panels of experts.

Said Forbes Executive Editor Michael Noer, "The 30 Under 30 represent the best creative, intellectual and entrepreneurial energy of an entire generation. These are people that you will be hearing about for a very long time. They exemplify the positive spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism that Forbes has championed for nearly a century."