In the 1960s, Geoffrey C. Fox was studying advanced mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, where he was an undergraduate research student in Francis Crick’s lab. Crick was one of the Nobel Prize-winning duo who discovered the double helix of DNA.
More than a half century later, Fox is considered a pioneer in the fields now known as computational and data science, and he has brought his considerable influence and expertise to the University of Virginia, where he joined the faculty of the Biocomplexity Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Computer Science in July.
“We are thrilled to welcome Geoffrey to our team,” said Christopher L. Barrett, executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute. “He has made significant contributions in his field and will play an invaluable role in our efforts to solve complex societal challenges through computation and team science.”
Fox comes to UVA from Indiana University’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, where he was a distinguished professor and director of the Digital Science Center, which aims to make supercomputing tools more accessible for researchers striving to make progress on a wide range of global challenges, including health care, particle physics and defense.
He is renowned for his work in high-performance computing, which refers to processing large, complex sets of data at very high speeds, and parallel computing, which involves breaking down computing problems into smaller, simultaneous tasks. He has used those methods to examine everything from quarks to earthquakes to ice sheets.
“Geoffrey is a giant in high-performance computing, and he brings to UVA his lifelong passion for unlocking the power of computing to enrich and improve peoples’ lives,” said Kevin Skadron, Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor and chair of computer science at UVA Engineering. “He is also dedicated to educating the next generation of computing leaders, and we are excited that our students will get the chance to learn from him.”
Back in the 1960s in England, Fox was writing his own computer code to analyze “big data” before it was even called that. His Ph.D. advisor gave Fox a tip that would stick with him: Look at data, because not many people do that.
“I have always tried to do things that are useful, and I enjoy solving problems,” he said from his new home in Charlottesville. “Computers solve problems.”
Though his degrees were not in computer science, the sheer amount of programming he did in his early career proved to be a differentiator and propelled him to international recognition in computation and data science.
“I worked on the interface of theory and experiment,” he said. “I tried to take the theory, build computer programs, some of the most sophisticated programing of the day, and then compare them with experiments.”
In the decades since earning his Ph.D. from Cambridge in theoretical physics in 1967, Fox has published more than 1,200 scientific papers that have been cited more than 41,000 times.
Not only is he a curious and gifted researcher, Fox is also a prolific teacher. He’s led 75 students through their Ph.D. journeys while also providing opportunities to bring diversity into computer science.
Fox’s community service has included involvement with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to identify research opportunities in computing for the students and staff of minority-serving institutions. He also has taught Java and parallel computing courses online since 1997 to students of historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
Fox has also made important contributions to computing standards through leadership roles with the Open Grid Forum and the Java Grande Forum.
A fellow of both the American Physical Society and the Association for Computing Machinery, Fox has received numerous awards for his research, teaching and diversity outreach efforts that go all the way back to his student days at Cambridge, including:
- The 2019 ACM-IEEE CS Ken Kennedy Award for his contributions to parallel computing methodology, algorithms and software, and data analysis, and their interfaces with broad classes of applications.
- The 2019 HPDC (High-Performance Parallel and Distributed Computing) Achievement Award for his foundational work on parallel computing, high-performance software, the interface between applications and systems, contributions to education, and outreach to underrepresented communities. This award and the Kennedy Award were presented at the 28th International ACM HPDC 2019, where Fox gave a keynote address.
- A ComputerWorld magazine citation in 2014 that called Fox’s massive online open course, “Big Data Applications,” one of the “7 Great MOOCs for Techies.”
- The 2011 Distinguished Professor award, the most prestigious appointment offered by Indiana University.
- The 1964 Mayhew Prize, bestowed annually by the faculty of mathematics at the University of Cambridge to the student showing the greatest distinction in applied mathematics.
In addition to his posts at Indiana University and now UVA, Fox has held positions at the California Institute of Technology, Syracuse University and Florida State University. Prior to that, he was a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, and Peterhouse College in Cambridge, England.
With modern advancements in the study of computer science, specifically the development of deep-learning machines that gather knowledge similarly to the way human brains learn through neural networks, Fox believes there are many new discoveries on the horizon. He wants to be part of making them.
“I think we’ll see huge progress in tackling a lot of problems where there is no theory because we will learn the theory from the data,” he said. “This is not something we could have done in the past, and the Biocomplexity Institute and the Department of Computer Science at UVA are really well positioned to lead on those fronts.”
In addition to overseeing a new group of Ph.D. students, Fox will work on the Biocomplexity Institute’s multi-university Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology project, funded by a $10 million Expeditions in Computing award from the National Science Foundation. The institute’s principal investigator for the project, Madhav Marathe, and the research team aim to develop and test new strategies for controlling epidemics, providing analysis and support for decision-makers and epidemiologists during outbreaks using a new system called the Cyber-Environment for Real-Time Epidemic Science.
“Geoffrey has collaborated with us on a couple of research projects and added his invaluable knowledge and expertise to the research process,” said Marathe, director of the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing division at the Biocomplexity Institute and professor of computer science. “We look forward to working alongside him on a day-to-day basis in his new appointment at the Institute.”
Fox said he believes the Biocomplexity Institute’s model for team science and computational approaches to complex problems, paired with its relationships with industry and policy makers, is the way of the future.
Over the last decade, consumer businesses like Uber, Netflix and Facebook have invested heavily in the science of deep learning, leading to billions of dollars in earnings and huge advancements, especially around language translation and recommender engines, which give technology users suggestions based upon their previous choices.
“In the next 10 years, I think we are in for an incredible revolution in the way science is done,” Fox said. “There will be a huge number of new methods for discovery, and I am driven to make discoveries. I want to make progress.”