Privacy Expert Awarded for Teaching Excellence

November 02, 2018

Ashwin MachanavajjhalaWe live in a world where data is the new currency. Every aspect of our lives is tracked digitally, especially through the internet and mobile devices. However, sensitive information can be gleaned from this data and could cause social and financial harm to the individual.

Ashwin Machanavajjhala is a brilliant, creative scholar and pioneer in the important field of database privacy. While he could have spent his career in industry, his desire to blend research with teaching led him to a faculty position at Duke University in the Department of Computer Science.

Machanavajjhala is also an exceptional educator, and others have taken notice. Duke University’s Trinity College named him the 2018 recipient of the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award. This award recognizes faculty members for teaching excellence and their ability to encourage intellectual excitement, inspire the discovery of knowledge, and foster critical inquiry in the classroom, lab, or studio.

“This is a huge honor for me and I am blessed to have great colleagues and students here at Duke,” he said. “I have the freedom to pursue the research problems that interest me as well as have an impact on society.”

A former Senior Research Scientist in the Knowledge Management group at Yahoo! Research, Machanavajjhala has worked in the Department of Computer Science since 2012 and was recently promoted to Associate Professor.

“It was a good move for me,” said Machanavajjhala, who earned his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Cornell University. “I really like interacting with students, teaching them, mentoring them, and watching them grow.”

Machanavajjhala’s interest in sharing his expertise in the burgeoning field of data science led him to collaborate with departmental colleague, Professor Jun Yang to create “Everything Data.” This course explores all the fundamentals of data science, from analytics to data cleaning, provenance, storage, and visualization. His newest course creation is “Privacy & Fairness in Data Science,” which examines the relationship between ensuring data privacy and making sure data is used fairly.

“Ashwin has proven himself to be an exceptional teacher and mentor. He is passionate, effective and engaging with his students,” said Pankaj K. Argawal, RJR Nabisco Professor and Chair of the Duke University Department of Computer Science. “Ashwin is also an extremely talented and productive researcher, recognized leader of his research area, and an outspoken, engaging member of our department with vision and ideas.”

Teaching, mentoring, and advising students keeps Machanavajjhala in close contact with the next generation of computer scientists. However, it was his research on one of the most pressing technical problems of our times—developing ways to protect privacy and keep personal data secure while balancing the increasing benefits of data-driven science and decision-making—which helped earn him the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Career Award in 2013.  

Machanavajjhala's research focuses on designing algorithms to analyze and “anonymized” data collected from a group of individuals (such as medical data or U.S. Census Data) with provable guarantees of individuals' privacy using differential privacy. “Even from so-called ‛anonymous’ data, you can sometimes infer who it comes from,” he said. “When data are released using differential privacy, we can give a formal proof that the privacy risk to an individual due to the release is bounded.”

Machanavajjhala is part of a team of experts helping the U.S.Census Bureau modernize their data publication processes. In particular, they are developing algorithms that will ensure that the results of the decennial census in 2020 will be released with provable differential privacy protections for individuals.

“My passions are my students and really understanding what privacy means,” he said. “At Duke, I am able to pursue both.”