Regina Barzilay teaches one of the most popular computer science classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And in her research — at least until five years ago — she looked at how a computer could use machine learning to read and decipher obscure ancient texts.
“This is clearly of no practical use,” she says with a laugh. “But it was really cool, and I was really obsessed about this topic, how machines could do it.”
But in 2014, Barzilay was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that not only disrupted her life, but it led her to rethink her research career. She has landed at the vanguard of a rapidly growing effort to revolutionize mammography and breast cancer management with the use of computer algorithms.
She started down that path after her disease put her into the deep end of the American medical system. She found it baffling.
“I was really surprised how primitive information technology is in the hospitals,” she says. “It almost felt that we were in a different century.”