New faculty profile: Kyle Cranmer seeks to advance scientific discovery through new ways of looking at data

Kyle Cranmer head shotKyle Cranmer joined the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute in July 2022 as the David R. Anderson Director. He is a professor in the Physics Department with affiliate appointments in Computer Sciences and Statistics.

What is your hometown?
Little Rock, Arkansas. The last two years of high school, I went to a public boarding school—the Arkansas School for Math and Science—in Hot Springs.

What is your educational/professional background?
I did my undergrad in math and physics at Rice University. I got my Ph.D. right here in Madison. I was a fellow at Brookhaven National Lab before I moved to New York University, where I was a professor of physics for 15 years. I was also the executive director of the Moore-Sloan Data Science Environment, where we worked to understand the institutional changes necessary to establish data science in academia.

How did you get into your current field of research?
The first part of my professional career was focused on particle physics and the search for the Higgs boson, which we discovered in 2012. That was right around the time deep learning was taking off, and I started thinking about how we could apply the advances we were seeing in machine learning to the sciences. I think of my particle physics research as my muse for coming up with new methodological techniques. I think about how the problems manifest themselves in the context of physics, which I know really well, and then I abstract the solutions I come up with to other fields.

What are the main goals of your research program?
On the physics side, there are two strategies happening at the Large Hadron Collider. One of them is to make very precise measurements as a way of revealing some kind of crack in our understanding. The other is to look at the data in a more open-minded way. Initially, people at the LHC were looking for evidence for very specific theories, and we haven’t found it. Reframing how we go about doing particle physics on the largest data set in science is interesting. On the machine learning side, I’m interested in how we can use ML techniques and still maintain some notion of interpretability and scientific understanding. I’m also interested in combining causality with machine learning.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
As we pile the tower of knowledge higher and higher, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the foundational questions are timeless. Those foundations you use to frame the problem are often the most important, and all the stuff built on top can be revisited as technology moves forward.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
I had a fantastic time here as a graduate student. I love the city, and it’s certainly a powerhouse university. My wife is from Wisconsin, and we still have family here. Living in New York City for fifteen years was fun and exciting, but coming back to Wisconsin was always an attractive option. When the directorship for the Data Science Institute came along, everything aligned. It’s nice to be back.

What was your first visit to campus like?
When I was a prospective graduate student, I remember walking along the lake by Observatory Hill, and it was gorgeous. And then I remember going into the Union and the Rathskeller and thinking this campus seemed like a good fit for me.

What is your favorite place on campus?
I would say that it’s hard to beat the Terrace. I also enjoy looking at the plaques around campus that talk about the amazing things that have been done here. It’s inspiring. It reminds me of the Wisconsin Idea, and the thought of trying to do something so significant as to get another plaque is compelling.

What are you most enjoying about working here?
I’m getting to know a lot of amazing people from parts of the university that I didn’t know when I was a graduate student. It’s exciting to think about all the ways we can collaborate and do something amazing. The potential is huge.

Do you share your work and expertise with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I’ve done videos on YouTube, but my primary mechanism for engaging the public in terms of social media is Twitter (@kylecranmer). I have a little over 13 thousand followers.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea?
I do. One of the things that I’m excited about in taking this new role is the ability to have immediate, real-world impact, especially on some of the existential challenges of the day, like climate and sustainability.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Now that we know the mass of the Higgs particle, it’s possible the universe is unstable and could transition into some other phase that would destroy all life. But if that happens, it will fly through us at the speed of light, and we won’t even know it happened or be able to warn anyone.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I love music a lot. I love nature: going on hikes, star gazing and camping. I prioritize spending time with my family.