« Continued from Renetta Garrison Tull

Hanna Wallach

Researcher, Microsoft; Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

PhD, Machine Learning, University of Cambridge
MS, Cognitive Science and Machine Learning, University of Edinburgh
BS, Computer Science, University of Cambridge

In speaking with Hanna Wallach, she proudly cites a point of great distinction: “I’m probably the only person on the planet who has appeared in both Linux Format and Glamour magazines.”

Another example of bridging different worlds—Wallach works in research at Microsoft and also has academic responsibilities at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At UMass, Wallach is a core faculty member in the recently formed Computational Social Science Institute, where she develops new machine learning methods for uncovering fresh insights about the ways in which people interact. She collaborates with political scientists, sociologists, and journalists to learn how organizations—often those underlying the U.S. political system—work in practice by analyzing publicly available data. Her research contributes to machine learning, Bayesian statistics, and in collaboration with social scientists, to the field of computational social science. Her work on infinite belief networks won the best paper award at AISTATS 2010, and she’s organized several workshops on Bayesian latent variable modeling and computational social science.

A Glamour Magazine “35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry” honoree, Wallach says “at its core, my work is really all about using fancy math and fast computers to learn about social processes, such as those that underlie the U.S. government.” She adds that what enables her cutting-edge work is the massive quantity and diversity of data now publicly available. “We’ve had computers for a while. We’ve also had some of the math. But now we have massive amounts of data. What were once hypothetical theories about people and society are now being validated (or disproved!) by large-scale, data-driven analyses. This is extremely exciting.”

Is a researcher and computer science professor also a data professional? “Yes, absolutely,” says Wallach, “because data science brings together people with a wide variety of skill sets and backgrounds.” Moreover, she believes that in order to succeed in the field, you need to be open-minded, interested, and continually learning—you need to have a “growth mindset.”

Wallach enjoys a strong network of professional women and men, who are at the ready to provide support, suggestions, and advice as role models, friends, and colleagues. Committed to giving back and supporting the cause of helping other women, Wallach has cofounded three groups that focus on helping the next generation, including the annual Women in Machine Learning Workshop (which is currently in its ninth year!).

From her vantage point, Hanna sees a few fixes to the educational system that would help bring more women into the data and STEM fields. She believes it’s critical to involve girls in science as early as possible (waiting until college is way too late, in her opinion). In addition, she encourages visible role models, promoting diversity and inclusion, and networking. Wallach strongly believes it’s important to embrace and seek out diversity: "There's even considerable research about how teams with diverse viewpoints end up creating better ideas and products."

Article image: From Left to right: Patsy Simmers, Mrs. Gail Taylor, Mrs. Milly Beck and Mrs. Norma Stec, holding the ENIAC and newer versions of computer boards. (source: U.S. Army Photo (Wikipedia)).