Yelena Yesha has been appointed the first Knight Chair of the Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC) at the University of Miami. “She is the perfect fit because she also has the expertise in translating data science into computer applications to solve real-world problems,” said IDSC founding director Nicholas Tsinoremas.
As an expert in blockchain technology, personalized health care, and electronic commerce, Yelena Yesha has always been drawn to challenges.
When the teenage math and physics whiz won second place in Ukraine’s Physics Olympics, she was offered an accelerated path to college—but only if her parents agreed to stay in the oppressive homeland where they were forced out of their jobs. Instead, the ambitious 17-year-old used her meager English skills to help her family flee what is now Ukraine and settle in Canada.
Within three years, Yesha had completed two bachelor’s degrees. Not long after, she gained a reputation for ingenuity and collaboration that landed her in leading roles at some of the nation’s most powerful computing agencies. Often the only woman in the room, and certainly the first to be in charge, she led teams that created one of the federal government’s first electronic commerce systems, repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, and mined health care data to forecast illnesses, improve diagnoses, and forge therapeutic outcomes.
Now the renowned data scientist is eager to take on a new venture as the first John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Miami’s Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC).
“Yelena has a long career in data science—even before you called it that—and has created applications for technology in fields like cybersecurity, remote sensing, and health care,” said IDSC founding director Nicholas Tsinoremas, the University’s vice provost for research, computing, and data. “This is precisely what we want to do in IDSC; thus, she is the perfect fit because she also has the expertise in translating data science into computer applications to solve real-world problems.”
Yesha will direct the artificial intelligence and machine learning program at IDSC, and continue serving as its innovation officer, a role she began in January 2020, when she joined IDSC as a distinguished visiting professor from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The first woman in UMBC’s computer science department, at age 32, Yesha also became one of its youngest full professors. Yesha said she was lured from her academic home of 30 years by IDSC’s mission to transform the University into a world-class epicenter of data science through research with international scholars and partnerships with innovative companies.
“As Miami becomes a hub for startups, it presents an exciting landscape to train the next generation of our workforce in data science and to help companies take products to the market,” Yesha said.
While at UMBC, Yesha founded the Center for Accelerated Real Time Analytics (CARTA), which pairs academics with government and industry partners to extract useful information from massive and moving real-time data sets. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the University of Miami just became one of CARTA’s five academic sites and is poised to collaborate with several prominent government and industry leaders—a hallmark of Yesha’s career.
Though she is renowned in the computing field for harnessing data to solve problems in cybersecurity, remote sensing, health care, and e-commerce, Yesha dreamed of being a physician at a young age. But as she learned more about technology, her career goal evolved into one that utilized computers to improve the delivery of health care for everyone.
For the past decade, she has been working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and using their massive database of clinical information in order to forecast illness. She continues to refine that tool while working on several other health care applications—to improve diagnosis and therapy for dementia patients, develop household smart sensors to transmit a patient’s vital signs to their doctors, and utilize machine learning to diagnose COVID-19 from a patient’s lung CT scans and X-rays.
“I am finally realizing my dreams now, 40 years later,” Yesha said. “My mission is to empower health care providers to take a more patient-centric approach and to take advantage of novel technology at the point of care. We can utilize new technology to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment process.”
Yesha remains humble about her success, which did not come without hardship.
When her family arrived in Canada in 1980, they had few belongings and even less money. She could barely afford bus fare while living in Toronto but remained eager to attend college. Ever resourceful, she earned a scholarship to attend York University and within three years, she earned two bachelor’s degrees in computer science and applied mathematics. During that time, she also met her future husband, Yaacov Yesha, a fellow computer scientist at the University of Toronto.
Shortly after her graduation, the couple moved to Ohio, where Yaacov landed a faculty position at The Ohio State University, while his wife earned her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in computer science and cared for their newborn daughter, Rose. Then, in 1989, the couple moved to Baltimore to join the UMBC faculty.
At UMBC, Yesha remained the only female faculty member in the computer science department for many years. At Miami, she is one of just three female faculty members in the Department of Computer Science, something she hopes will change.
“We’ve never had enough women in computer science. In past decades we have seen more, but we have never reached critical mass, or even close to it,” she said. “Still, plenty of women have expertise in data science. If women don’t participate in the field, the United States will lag far behind the rest of the world.”
Yesha was fortunate to glean some high-profile opportunities outside of academia early in her career. After just five years at UMBC, Yesha was called upon by a White House staff member to lead the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Center for Applied Information Technology (CAIT) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Taking a leave from UMBC, Yesha galvanized a team of computer scientists to create one of the first electronic commerce systems to be used by the federal government. Today, a version of the system is used to process federal transactions in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Yesha was also selected to represent the United States at the G7 global marketplace for small and medium enterprises group, and guided small and medium businesses in transitioning to online platforms. The experience led her to write an e-commerce textbook and curriculum. The comprehensive text has been widely used by many North American and European universities.
“We dealt with the business aspects of e-commerce, as well as the policy issues such as adding taxes and securing electronic payments,” she said. “In the beginning, there were many challenges to overcome.”
After an invigorating year at CAIT, Yesha was selected to become the director of NASA’s Center for Excellence in Space Data and Information Sciences for five years, outshining a few of her male contemporaries. It was there that her team of scientists helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope. She also supervised the development of Beowulf, a computer system that revolutionized high-performance parallel computing and is now used in research labs across the globe. Her team also developed major components of the Linux operating system and created the Global Legal Information Network at the Library of Congress, to provide a secure satellite communication among countries working on international laws or treaties.
Around the same time, she also began consulting for IBM’s product development division.
“I’ve been privileged to work on the release of several commercial products. This experience led me to critically examine the power of translational research and resulted in enriching the curriculum of the classes I taught,” she said.
Back at UMBC, in 2003, the chair of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine approached Yesha about creating a virtual operating room, and she was finally able to combine her computing expertise with her interest in health care. The pair worked closely together to design the nation’s first computer-based surgical simulation rooms for surgery fellows at the University of Maryland.
Soon after, Yesha delved into personalized medicine, helping hospitals across the world combine genetic data with clinical information to craft individualized patient treatment plans. At IDSC, she is eager to continue advancing health care technology, by employing a range of tools, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain technology.
Yesha, who founded a blockchain startup, Softhread, is widely regarded as an expert in the technology. She sees blockchain—which is often described as a database shared across a network of computers that keeps chronological order of changes made to it—as the key to revolutionizing our everyday lives.
University leaders are glad to have Yesha’s insight on campus.
“Yelena is a trailblazer in her field and is extremely knowledgeable about the latest technology, but also understands the trajectory of computing today,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “This understanding will help guide our students, faculty, staff, and community toward the next technology revolution, and we are elated to have her at the University of Miami.”