Joelle Pineau awarded NSERC’s Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Using AI to improve the treatment of cancer and heart disease
Published: 1 May 2018

By Meaghan Thurston

For Joelle Pineau, becoming a medical doctor was—in her words—not in the cards. However, this Associate Professor from McGill`s School of Computer Science is now the driving force behind promising research whose aim is to use AI to improve the treatment of cancer and heart disease.

More specifically, Pineau and her colleagues from the departments of Medical Physics and Bioengineering at McGill are trying to improve adaptive radiation dosage by using a combination of computational modelling, cell cultures, and animal models of carcinogenesis. Initial results of this collaborative work demonstrate faster discovery of a personalized pharmacological treatment strategy. The researchers will soon incorporate imaging data in order to enrich the information base about patient pathology and disease progression.

In recognition of her innovative approach, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) today awarded Pineau one of 6 prestigious E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowships. Steacie Fellows receive $250,000 over two years and are relieved of teaching and administrative duties so that they can devote their time and energy to research.

“I am so honoured to receive the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship”, said Pineau. “On the road to McGill’s 200th anniversary, it is my research group’s objective to harness the unimaginable potential of AI to develop solutions for unmet clinical and patient needs.”

A balance of fundamental and applied science

Pineau is one of the forces behind McGill’s growing specialization in reinforcement learning (RL), a sub-discipline of machine learning concerned with building programs which learn how to predict and act, based on experience.  Her goal is to develop a signature mathematical construct to capture a suite of elements related to health, including an individual’s medical history, genetics, lab tests, imaging results, and history of interventions. In addition, Pineau will address questions about communicating methods.

In order to reach these goals, two-thirds of the students in Pineau’s lab are working on mathematical models that are fundamental in nature. “It is rich to have this duel research agenda, both fundamental and applied, which allows for collaborations across departments,” says Pineau. “For me, working on applied problems also helps me stay grounded in my math models, but in a more directed way.”

For Pineau, any idea is worth exploring, but ultimately it is the robustness and reliability of the dataset that determines the outcome. “AI solutions are about using data to expose patterns, and if the data you have is not robust to replication, it will not yield results,” she cautions. “The work of an AI researcher is in many ways like that of a financial planner. You take an honest look at the data and then plan the best way forward.”

Thanks to NSERC’s continued support, Pineau’s research has the potential to revolutionize the field of personalized medicine. “We are grateful to NSERC for its support of innovative research, including Professor Pineau’s specialization in reinforcement learning,” said Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “Congratulations to Professor Pineau on this well-deserved recognition of her contributions to AI advances in academia and industry.”

Pineau is the current Director of Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) Montreal and will continue in this position while holding the E.W.R. Steacie Award.

On May 1, 2018, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) celebrated the winners of its six national prizes: the Synergy Awards for Innovation; NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prizes for Interdisciplinary Research; E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships; Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering; NSERC John C. Polanyi Award; and Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. The winners were awarded at a ceremony at the Governor General of Canada’s residence at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

For more information about the E.W.R. Steacie Award:

PHOTO:  Martin Lipman/NSERC

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