Remembering Octavian-Eugen Ganea, a gifted MIT postdoc AI researcher and beloved colleague
- July 7, 2022
Octavian-Eugen Ganea, a gifted postdoctoral artificial intelligence researcher at the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic) and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) passed away during a hike in French Polynesia on May 26. He was 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. While at MIT, he worked with CSAIL professors Tommi Jaakkola and Regina Barzilay; Ganea was focused on bringing geometric thinking into machine learning to accelerate drug discovery, and had plans to continue this work as a tenure-track assistant professor this coming fall at NYU Courant and NYU Tandon.
“Octavian was a brilliant scientist whose research broke new ground in machine learning, bridging the gap between physical and neural views on molecular representations,” Barzilay says. She describes Ganea’s research on geometry-informed algorithms for molecular modeling as “mathematically clean, elegant and effective solutions for problems which are commonly solved with heuristic approaches. The transformational impact of his work ranges from material design to drug discovery.” Besides Ganea’s technical excellence, Barzilay was impressed by Ganea’s “kindness and care 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 mathematics and geometry but wanted the theory to count for something, impact people.” Jaakkola also observed that as a researcher, Ganea was “a force of nature, his positive intellectual energy ever-present and contagious.” Even when things didn’t work, Ganea would systematically exhaust a problem “with creativity and persistence … 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 recalls. “We miss him dearly as a friend, colleague, and mentor.”
Many colleagues remembered Ganea’s exceptional modesty, even with his many successes. Upon accepting a faculty offer from NYU, Ganea confessed that he wasn’t sure he deserved it, but many of his colleagues insisted that there was no one more suited for the job. “I could not imagine that someone could possibly be more qualified than he was,” second-year CSAIL PhD student Jeremy Wohlwend said. “He was brilliant and determined, yet humble and kind. He would have been an amazing professor.”
Ganea mentored a number of students at MIT and beyond, with many recalling his mentorship as meaningful not just professionally, but also personally. He began mentoring Hannes Stärk, now a first-year PhD student in CSAIL, while Stärk was still in the process of completing his master’s degree in Germany. “I had no papers published and no promising track record,” Stärk recalls. “Just because I showed interest he decided to help me and advise me on a project in October of 2021. Now … I am certain that I would not 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, paper writing, the academic world and research in general.” In the time Ganea spent mentoring him, Stärk always thought it was “astounding how much there was to learn from [Ganea] about research and on a personal level.”
While Ganea was known to have a contagious enthusiasm for his research, he was also deeply devoted to his family. “One day I saw Octavian riding his bike with his daughter, and he stopped to chat with me and [my wife],” recounted CSAIL graduate student Itamar Chinn. “I remember telling her that he is the kind of father I would want to be. Extremely dedicated to his work and his goals but at the same time making family a top priority. They were both so happy biking through Cambridge.” Ganea was also an avid mountaineer and a runner, two hobbies reflecting a persevering attitude that he maintained throughout his academic career.
“Octavian was truly a dedicated and prolific scientist, demonstrated through his passion for computational biology and finding advantageous tools for the medical field,” CSAIL Director Daniela Rus says. “He was authentic, full of positive energy, patient and incredibly kind and generous with his time.”