Octavian-Eugen Ganea, a gifted postdoctoral researcher in artificial intelligence at the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic) and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), died on May 26 while walking in French -Polynesia. 34.
Born and raised in Romania, Ganea joined MIT in 2019 after receiving his PhD in computer science from the Data Analytics Lab at ETH Zurich. At MIT, he worked with CSAIL professors Tommi Jaakkola and Regina Barzilay; Ganea focused on introducing geometric thinking into machine learning to accelerate drug discovery, and had plans to continue this work next fall as a tenure-track assistant professor at NYU Courant and NYU Tandon.
“Octavian was a brilliant scientist whose research pioneered machine learning, bridging the gap between physical and neural conceptions of molecular representations,” says Barzilay. She describes Ganea’s research on geometry-informed molecular modeling algorithms as “mathematically clean, elegant and effective solutions to problems commonly solved with heuristic approaches. The transformational impact of his work ranges from materials design to drug discovery.” In addition to Ganea’s technical excellence, Barzilay was impressed by Ganea’s “kindness and concern for others, [which] brought light to the lives of many people at MIT and beyond. We miss him so much.”
Jaakkola added that Ganea’s passion for impactful research stood out: “He loved math and geometry, but wanted the theory to count for something, to influence people.” Jaakkola also noted that as a researcher, Ganea was “a force of nature, his positive intellectual energy ever-present and infectious.” Even when things didn’t work, Ganea systematically exhausts a problem “with creativity and perseverance … He had this rare authenticity and honesty to him as a researcher – seeing and accepting himself, others and his science as they were, never judging,” Jaakkola remembers. “We miss him terribly as a friend, colleague and mentor.”
Many colleagues remembered Ganea’s exceptional modesty, even with his many successes. When he accepted an offer from an NYU faculty, Ganea confessed that he wasn’t sure he deserved it, but many of his colleagues insisted there was no one left for the job. “I couldn’t imagine anyone could be more qualified than he was,” said sophomore CSAIL PhD student Jeremy Wohlwend. “He was brilliant and determined, yet humble and kind. He would have been a great professor.”
Ganea mentored a number of students at MIT and beyond, and many recalled that his mentorship was meaningful not only professionally, but personally as well. He started supervising Hannes Stärk, now a first-year PhD student at CSAIL, while Stärk was still completing his master’s degree in Germany. “I had no papers published and no promising track record,” Stärk recalls. “Just because I showed an interest, he decided to help and advise me on a project in October 2021. Now … I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am without Octavian – without his generosity, his invaluable advice and all that I could learn from him about developing ideas, being creative, writing on paper, academia and research in general.” During the time Ganea spent on his mentorship, Stärk always found it “amazing how much there was to learn from [Ganea] on research and on a personal level.”
While Ganea was known to have an infectious enthusiasm for his research, he was also deeply devoted to his family. “One day I saw Octavian riding his bicycle with his daughter, and he stopped to talk to me and… [my wife]CSAIL graduate student Itamar Chinn told. “I remember telling her he’s the kind of dad I want to be. Extremely committed to his job and his goals, but at the same time making family a top priority. They were both so happy to be cycling through Cambridge.” Ganea was also an avid mountaineer and runner, two hobbies that testified to a tenacious attitude he had maintained throughout his academic career.
“Octavian was truly a dedicated and prolific scientist, demonstrated by his passion for computational biology and finding beneficial tools for the medical field,” said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “He was authentic, full of positive energy, patient and incredibly kind and generous with his time.”