DDD meeting, day 1

Today was the first day of a private finalist meeting for the new Moore Foundation Data Driven Discovery Individual Investigator grants. The format is a shootout of short talks and a few group activities. There were many extremely exciting talks at the meeting; here is just an incomplete smattering of highlights for me:

Ethan White (Utah State) showed amazing ecology data, with most data sources being people looking at things and counting things in the field, but then also some remote sensing data. He is using high-resolution time-series data on plants and animals to forecast changes in species and the ecosystem. He appeared to be checking his models "in the space of the data"—not in terms of reproduction of some external "truth"—which was nice.

Yaser Abu-Mostafa (Caltech) spoke about the practice and pitfalls of machine learning; in particular he is interested in new methods to thwart data "snooping" which is the name he gives to the problem "if you torture your data enough, it will confess".

Carey Priebe (JHU) opened his talk with the "Cortical Column Conjecture" which claims that the cortex is made up of many repeats of small network structures that are themselves, in some sense, computing primitives. This hypothesis is hard to test both because the graphs of neural connections in real brains are very noisy, and because inference on graphs (including finding repeated sub-graphs) is combinatorically hard.

Amit Singer (Princeton) is using micrographs of large molecules to infer three-dimensional structures. Each micrograph provides noisy data on a two-dimensional projection of each molecule; the collection of such projections provides enough information to both infer the Euler angles (three angles per molecule) and the three-dimensional structure (a very high-dimensional object). This project is very related to things LeCun, Barron, and I were talking about many years ago with galaxies.

Kim Reynolds (UT Southwestern Medical Center) is using genetic variation to determine which parts of a protein sequence are important for setting the structure and which are replaceable. She makes predictions about mutations that would not interrupt structure or function. She showed amazing structures of cellular flagella parts, and proposed that she might be able to create new kinds of flagella that would be structurally similar but different in detail.

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