After MIT professor Regina Barzilay survived breast cancer, she started using her computer science background to help prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease.
Sunil Amrith, a historian at Harvard University, has written extensively about migration in India and Southeast Asia, most recently in a book about the Bay of Bengal, which was crossed by 28 million people between 1840 and 1940.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday that Barzilay and Amrith are among 24 scholars who have been awarded a $625,000 fellowship, which they can use to advance their careers as they see fit. The honor is sometimes referred to as a “genius grant.”
Barzilay and Amrith said they’ve known about the honor for several weeks, but could only share their good news with one person before the official announcement.
Barzilay, 46, said she was in her MIT office preparing for a class when she got a call from the foundation.
“I was shocked,” Barzilay said Tuesday. “I thought, if it’s not a hoax, I’m really humbled by it.”
The foundation calls the honor a “no strings attached” award. Candidates for the prize are recommended to the program by a rotating pool of specialists in the arts, sciences, humanities, and other fields. Applications or unsolicited nominations are not considered.
A selection committee reviews the nominations and makes it recommendations to the MacArthur Foundation’s president and board of directors.
Barzilay, who said she had been rebuffed by other funders, will use her prize to continue to work on improving cancer care using machine learning and natural language processing.
Barzilay’s own bout with cancer led her to the project. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, Barzilay said she struggled to make decisions about her treatment options.
“Being a patient, I really felt that I lacked a lot of data to make informed decisions,” she said.
Barzilay described the conundrum as a data problem. Oncologists rely on clinical trials to devise treatment plans, but only 3 percent of cancer patients enroll in those studies, she said. That means valuable information about the vast majority of the country’s cancer patients isn’t taken into consideration.
But computers can help digest reams of data through natural language processing — teaching the machine to read human language, search documents, and summarize the information. Machine learning can be used to identify patterns in a set of data.
In one collaboration with doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, Barzilay said natural language processing was used to extract clinical data from pathology reports collected over 30 years from three area hospitals and organize the information into databases.
For another project, Barzilay is creating computer models to read mammograms and possibly predict a patient’s likelihood of developing cancer in the future.
Amrith, 38, said he was walking along the Charles River to pick up his 4-year-old son from day care when he got the call from the MacArthur Foundation. He told his wife, Ruth Coffey, about the prize, and then last week, his family got bigger as the couple welcomed a daughter, Lydia.
“It’s something quite so unexpected and so amazingly generous,” said Amrith, who was born in Singapore and educated at the University of Cambridge in England. “It’s taken a long time to sink in and, of course, the shock of getting that phone call hasn’t really gone away.”
Amrith’s most recent book was “Crossing the Bay of Bengal,” which examined the movement of people and goods across the major maritime route in the Indian Ocean.
He said he hasn’t decided how to spend the prize, but may use some of the money to finish a project examining monsoons and their impact on migration, and learn more about China, which is key to understanding India and the rest of Southeast Asia, he said.
For his next research venture, Amrith said he’d like to try something bold, and perhaps collaborate with a filmmaker, musician, or photographer.
“I’m trying to make myself slow down and try to sort of decide how to use the prize,” he said. “It’s so unexpected and so lavish. I want to think in the biggest possible terms and make sure I’m using this in the most productive and creative way.”