SFU computing science professor Martin Ester named Royal Society of Canada Fellow

September 10, 2019

By Andrew Ringer

Simon Fraser University computing science professor Martin Ester, a renowned researcher in data mining and machine learning, has been selected as a Royal Society of Canada (RSC) Fellow.

With this honour, Ester now joins the top scientists, scholars, and artists in their respective fields, as elected by their peers. He is one of eight SFU researchers to be named RSC Fellows or College Members this year.

“It’s an honour, it’s a great encouragement,” says Ester. “This is the recognition of a lifetime.” This comes even after he was named the world’s most influential data-mining scholar in 2016.  

Ester’s research focuses on data mining and machine learning, where he is tasked with finding knowledge, patterns and structure in large amounts of data. To do so, he creates efficient algorithms that are able to effectively analyze the data.

The work Ester is most famous for is the proposal of the DBSCAN algorithm for density-based clustering in 1996. This came in the first stage of his career, where he was focused on the theoretical side of computer science and algorithm development.

“You want to identify new problems and you need to solve them in a principled manner. So you need some underlying theory, you need to develop some sound algorithms,” says Ester.

The second stage of his career has been at SFU, when he moved to Vancouver in 2001. In this time period, he has become more interested in the applications of his research. Most recently, these have been in the areas of molecular biology and medicine.

Ester works closely with cancer researchers on developing data mining and machine learning methods that help them with cancer research, cancer diagnosis and treatment. He spends one day a week at the Vancouver Prostate Centre, a leading cancer research center.

In a large research project in collaboration with BC Children’s Hospital and other Canadian hospitals, the Ester lab is investigating methods to predict the adverse side effects of cancer drugs. More specifically, the goal is to discover genetic causes of adverse drug reactions, which are harder to find but more valuable than patterns of correlation. If they know such causal relationships, doctors are able to prescribe a drug that is more likely to avoid a negative outcome.

More recently, Ester has started to work on precision agriculture. This involves using data mining to predict which chemical compounds will be most effective against certain fungi that are negatively effecting crops. This will help biologists and chemists decide which compounds to test against these fungi, and will ultimately result in a more productive and more environmentally friendly agriculture system.

“I have the desire to contribute to the common good,” says Ester. He has a personal connection to cancer research because his father passed away from colon cancer. This, and his Christian faith, drive him to work for the good of others more than the good of himself.

While his faith gives him purpose, Ester is also a family man. He proudly states that his two boys are both becoming scientists; one is finishing his PhD in chemistry at SFU and the other is heading out to Calgary to also do his PhD.

He also loves the outdoors and commutes to SFU by mountain bike whenever he is on campus.

Ester enjoys the atmosphere at SFU, saying that the university encourages interdisciplinary research and is relatively non-bureaucratic. He finds it an exciting setting to research in, as all students and professors own the intellectual property that they generate.