Graduate Student Profile: Gavin Taylor

From the Spring 2011 issue of Threads

Being exposed to theory, stimulated by a basic love of concepts and mathematics, was a marvelous experience," said Nobel Prize-winning chemist Rudolph A. Marcus in 1992. It is a familiar sentiment to Gavin Taylor, a fifth year PhD student in the Department, whose passion for math and knack for problem solving led him to a computer science field immersed in theory.

A native of St. Louis, Taylor studied math as an undergraduate at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in Charlotte, North Carolina. After graduation, he was eager to pursue graduate studies at a university where he could explore his options in computer science before committing to a single pursuit.

PhD students Rishi Thonangi and Gavin Taylor

He encountered that and more at Duke. "As somebody who came in not knowing what he wanted to do, I've been able to interact easily with many people," says Taylor. "The Duke community and our small department really gave me the opportunity to do that." It didn't take long for Taylor, however, to find his calling in artificial intelligence and machine learning with Professor Ron Parr.

Today, Taylor is completing his dissertation on reinforcement learning, the study of how past experiences inform decision-making in an uncertain environment, and how to automate that process. "Reinforcement learning is about developing artificial intelligence by observing the effects of different actions," says Taylor, who graduates this spring. Within the field, Taylor models problems from robotics to everyday decisions using Markov Decision Processes, a mathematical framework for decision-making.

Beginning in the fall, Taylor will take up a post as an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. "I'd like to branch out into more areas in machine learning, especially working with other departments at the Naval Academy," he says. "I'm also looking forward to teaching." Taylor co-taught an undergraduate robotics class at Duke based on a robotics software interface he developed with graduate student Mac Mason. The two presented the program at the 2010 AAAI Robotics Workshop and Exhibition last year.

"I'm quite proud that Gavin will be teaching at the United States Naval Academy after graduation," says Parr. "I'm pleased that the Navy is putting increasing emphasis on computer science education for its midshipmen, and I'm delighted that they will benefit from the enthusiasm and dedication that Gavin will bring to the classroom." An active member of the Department, Taylor was involved in faculty hiring in 2010 and helped launch the graduate student mentorship program this year.

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