Rice University alumni and computer scientists Allison Heath and Clement Pang were recognized for their accomplishments as young alumni during the 2019 George R. Brown School of Engineering Alumni Celebration.
Heath, Director of Data Technology and Innovation at the Center for Data Driven Discovery in Biomedicine (D3b) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was nominated for her commitment to improving public health through data technology.
While still a graduate student in Lydia Kavraki’s research team at Rice, Heath worked on creating new algorithms for protein folding simulations, metabolic engineering, and prediction of search behavior. For the past decade, she has been providing innovative and collaborative technical leadership in big-data platforms for biomedical applications.
As the Director of Research for the Center for Data Intensive Science at the University of Chicago, Heath led the technical strategy and architecture for the NCI Genomic Data Commons (GDC) from its inception to successful launch.
Vice President Joe Biden, left, jokes with Robert Grossman, director of the GDC project and professor of medicine at University of Chicago, center, Lou Staudt, senior investigator head, Molecular Biology of Lymphoid Malignancies Section and Allison Heath, director of research, during a tour of the University of Chicago's National Cancer Institute, Genomic Data Commons at the Shoreland in Chicago, Monday, June 6, 2016. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune via AP)
“The launch of the GDC with Vice President Joe Biden and all of our team was definitely a high point for me,” said Heath. “Especially now as it can be seen as an initial spark for a much larger cancer research data ecosystem.” Two years after the launch, the NCI Director was quoted in a tweet, ‘The GDC was one of the most important things the NCI has done.’ Then we had the opportunity to take that kind of infrastructure to an equally meaningful application: pediatric cancer and structural birth defects.”
She’s describing her work with the Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource Center. Her move to Philadelphia revealed a surprising challenge: she could plug her coffee maker into an electrical outlet and be linked to a larger grid, but many of her new colleagues’ data collections lacked similar connections to a larger ecosystem. “Building data systems to facilitate broader connections is hard and unglamorous,” she said in a recent talk.
“But that kind of challenge is what gets engineers excited.” Heath and her team set out to build a platform that would bridge their disparate data sets.
In October, Heath gave a demo of her team’s work during the Computer Science Department’s 35th Anniversary Celebration. Reflecting on her selection by the Dean and the REA as an outstanding young engineering alumna, Heath said, “being back for the 35th made me fully realize what an incredible group of people Rice alumni are and I couldn't be more honored to be one of them, let alone receive this award.”
Even with her own accomplishments, Heath expressed how impressed she was by her colleagues who had also made impactful discoveries and contributions, as well as the next generation of innovative engineers.
“I got to meet Eleni Litsa and Nicole Mitchell [currently in the Kavraki lab] who are the ‘third generation’ of researchers expanding on work I did with Lydia in the field of metabolic networks. That was really meaningful to me, because I think developing and sustaining communities of people with the right expertise is how we tackle some of the toughest problems in the world.”
Pang, a software engineer and entrepreneur, got his first taste of machine learning (ML) and information retrieval by working with Rice Computer Science professor Devika Subramanian. He said his experience in her artificial intelligence lab also helped him secure a summer internship with Google that resulted in his return offer as staff software engineer.
“At Google, I led the infrastructure group that handled the processing of signals and machine learning models responsible for protecting major Google properties like AdWords, AdSense, Checkout and Gmail,” said Pang.
“Deep down, I’m a nerd and engineer at heart. As an engineer, I really want to build lasting, well-built software that is relatable, so I’m always looking for a good problem to solve with software.”
With GLMX, Pang’s first startup, he joined four other co-founders to create a full-fledged money market trading platform. As the founding engineer, Pang designed, architected, and built the platform from scratch in two years. Once the GLMX platform was launched, he looked for another problem to solve.
Wavefront founder Clement Pang presents a JavaOne keynote in 2016.
At his second startup, Wavefront, he built a massively scalable time series database and query engine to provide operational insight onto an organization’s applications, users, devices, hardware and infrastructure. Wavefront was so successful in querying real time data for companies like Microsoft, Box, Lyft, Intuit, and Doordash, that it was acquired by VMWare in 2017. Pang remained on board as Wavefront’s chief architect.
“I do some investing in startups on the side, but I’m still tinkering with code,” said Pang. “I love working on really hard problems – hard math, hard architecture. Rather than trying to be first to market, I go into a problem that requires an engineering solution. If I discover a market for the solution, I’ll build a company around it.”
Similarly, he built a career around opportunities that interested him. He began coding in his early teens, and built several web apps in high school, which prompted him to look for universities offering Computer Science degrees. Pang applied to Rice only because an uncle who lived in Texas said Rice had a good CS program. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Pang had never even visited Houston until he arrived for O-Week.
He said, “From the campus and college system to my professors and classmates, Rice was a pleasant surprise. There were only nine of us in my CS class. In my sophomore year, Devika invited undergraduate CS majors to join her AI lab. That kind of high-caliber research opportunity usually only goes to grad students.”
Subramanian’s team was building ML models to predict future international conflicts by monitoring online articles. Pang’s research goal was to detect irrelevant or duplicate news articles which would adversely influence the predictions. His findings were published in a 2006 research paper, and he enjoyed working on ML models and algorithms so much that he signed up for Subramanian’s graduate-level courses after completing all the undergraduate classes she taught.
Pang said he took advantage of a wide range of opportunities beyond research at Rice. He also worked as a college computer associate and co-founded Owl-Books for Rice campus students to buy and sell textbooks, using an automated pricing model based on available inventory. His second startup enabled students to buy and sell a wider variety of items. That venture expanded to more than 30 colleges and universities before Pang graduated.
"As a foreign student, Rice opened my eyes to everything Computer Science and beyond --including building a product, working in teams, starting companies in the dorm, acquiring an American accent, etc. This award is an affirmation of the endearing qualities of higher-education institutions in this country who welcomed students like me with open arms, and made it possible for us to dream and create the impossible," said Pang.
The award recognizing outstanding young engineering alumni is itself only 23 years old. It was established in 1996 by the Rice Engineering Alumni (REA) to celebrate the achievements of alumni under the age of 40. Only three other Rice University Computer Science alumni have received the recognition before Heath and Pang: Adobe principal scientist Aaron Hertzmann (BA CS and Art ’92), founder and CEO of Snapstream Rakesh Agrawal (BA CS and BS Mechanical Engineering ’98), and founder of Northworks3D, Trelligence, and Modulus Technologies Larry Ciscon, (BA CS and BS ECE '88, MSEE '90, PhD ECE '92). In addition, Cohesity and Nutanix founder Mohit Aron (MS CS '98, PhD CS '01) was recognized as an Outstanding Engineering Alumnus in 2018.