SFU computing science professor Jian Pei named Royal Society of Canada Fellow

September 10, 2019

By Andrew Ringer

Jian Pei, a Simon Fraser University computing science professor and one of the world’s leading researchers in data science, data mining and big data, has been selected as a Royal Society of Canada (RSC) Fellow.

The fellowship of the RSC recognizes the top scientists, scholars, and artists in their respective fields, as elected by their peers. Pei is one of eight SFU researchers to be named RSC Fellows or College Members this year.

This recognition is another accolade to add to Pei’s impressive resume with SFU. After graduating with his PhD at SFU in 2002, Pei has gone on to become the first Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow from the School of Computing Science (2014), the first Association for Computing Machinery Fellow from SFU (2015), as well as the only current Canadian researcher to receive the SIGKDD Innovation Award (2017), the highest award for technical excellence in the field of Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. He is also a former Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Big Data Science.  

“I was surprised in a very positive way. I thank the Royal Society of Canada for recognizing my work,” says Pei.

His research focuses on finding patterns within datasets and developing algorithms to understand data from different angles, which can then be used to build business intelligence tools.

“I help enterprises turn data into assets, to give them a unique competitive edge,” he says.

Pei has received over 87,000 citations from his peers, a sign of his expertise and recognition in the field. He is the best cited author at SFU, and among the top-10 most cited authors in the general areas of Computer Science and Electronics in Canada.

“I’m interested in solving data intensive applications and challenges,” says Pei. “My whole research is driven by developing scalable techniques for data intensive applications, and also I want to go beyond that to use data to change the world. For that some factors beyond the technical scope need to be considered.”

This outlook is evident in the projects that Pei has taken on in recent years.

For example, Pei is a leading big data researcher who has partnered with Pacific Blue Cross to help improve healthcare delivery, decision-making and outcomes.

“When using data science and artificial intelligence in decision-making, we can improve the quality of life,” he explains. “We can improve patient transfer, recovery and long-term disability.”

He also worked with a Chinese beer company to optimize their marketing and supply chain strategies during the 2018 World Cup by analyzing the available data. Pei notes that the increase in sales is not the only goal – he is also interested in helping businesses use data to incorporate more sustainable practices.

“If the supply chain is more efficient, we can reduce the environmental impact by improving the manufacturing and shipping processes,” he says.

Pei also used data for social good by helping small businesses to gain fair competencies in a fierce market often dominated by larger businesses. For example, he studied the supply and demand patterns in a region, and set up a system that helps small stores to share stocks and supplies when items go out of stock. With these tools, Pei encouraged small businesses to collaborate with one another in order to compete with major chains.

“I always want things to be fair,” says Pei.

His attention to making things fair stretches beyond commercial competition – he stresses the importance of considering ethics in his research, and ensures that privacy of data owners and contributors is respected.

“If data is used the right way, we can build a fair world. If not used properly, the consequences can be harder to reverse.”

In order to accurately understand complex datasets and build better business tools for all consumers a diverse group of data scientists is needed. That is why Pei looks for students with diverse backgrounds, and not necessarily a computer science background, and leads a research group that has 40-50% female researchers. He has graduated many successful students throughout his time as a professor at SFU, who are now leading their own teams in industry and academia.

Despite his accolades, however, Pei is not one for the spotlight.

He enjoys working at SFU because of the support he receives as well as the flexibility he has to pursue his research interests. If he takes a break from his research, you may see him running and exploring the Burnaby campus.

“We live in the age of data, but most of it is being wasted,” says Pei. “I research data for good because data is changing the world, and data is also changing us.”