Remembering Dragomir Radev, former colleague and faculty member

During his 17 years on the faculty at Michigan, Drago led research into NLP and touched many through his outreach and mentorship activities.
Dragomir Radev
Dragomir Radev

Dragomir Radev, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Computer Science at Yale University, passed away on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. Prior to joining Yale, Drago was an esteemed member of the University of Michigan CSE and School of Information faculty from January 2000 – December 2016. 

Originally from Bulgaria, Drago received his PhD in Computer Science from Columbia University in 1999. He burst into prominence in the field of natural language processing (NLP) with seminal research on multi-document text summarization, the topic of his PhD dissertation.

While at Michigan, Drago led the Computational Linguistics And Information Retrieval (CLAIR) research group. His research ultimately spanned natural language processing, machine learning, information retrieval, bioinformatics, text and data mining, social networks, social media, collective behavior, text generation, information extraction, and artificial intelligence. He worked in the fields of open domain question answering, multi-document summarization, and in the application of NLP in bioinformatics, social network analysis, and political science. His work helped to improve the processing of electronic health records, automated book summarization, and programming humor into natural language processing systems.

Drago was exceptionally active in outreach. He was co-founder and program chair of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO), an annual contest in which high school student teams solved linguistic and natural-language processing problems. At its peak, close to two thousand students from across the United States and Canada competed in NACLO each year. Finalist teams from NACLO would compete in the annual International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), and from 2007 – 2016 Drago traveled the world to serve as a head coach of each year’s two finalist US teams.

Through their efforts, Drago and his NACLO co-founders Lori Levin, Tom Payne, James Pustejovsky and Tanya Korelsky were responsible for attracting students of all levels into the field and for inspiring and training the next generation of computational linguists. In recognition of their work on NACLO, the founders were selected for the 2011 Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award by the Linguistic Society of America.

Drago was very active in his professional community, the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), and served as its secretary for ten years between 2006 and 2015. In 2005, he brought the flagship conference of the ACL to Ann Arbor, an effort that put University of Michigan on the NLP map. 

Drago enjoyed teaching, and he shared his passion for NLP with the thousands of students who took his classes. He was keen on bridging different departments and disciplines on campus, and the classes he taught were often cross-listed in CSE, SI, and Linguistics. In the summer of 2016, Drago extended his outreach, teaching two 12-week course offerings of his course Introduction to Natural Language Processing through the online education platform Coursera.

Faculty, staff and students alike knew Drago for his kindness and humor, and his constant support of others. Noting his contributions in research and outreach, the Executive Committee of ACL said of Drago in their obituary, “Drago was an exceptional individual who embodied the qualities of kindness, generosity, intelligence, and dedication in every aspect of his life.”

“I owe much of who I am to Drago,” said Rada Mihalcea, the Janice. M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. “Not only did he see value in me when others didn’t see it, but he’s also been a wonderful friend, a supportive colleague, and an intellectually stimulating collaborator over the course of more than 20 years. He was a very creative and insightful NLP researcher, and a true ‘language geek’ who enjoyed going deep into linguistic phenomena, and learning or sharing interesting facts about languages.”

“Drago and I began at UMSI at the same time — in the fall of 2000,” said Elizabeth Yakel, interim dean of the School of Information and C. Olivia Frost Collegiate Professor of Information. “Coincidentally, we also bought houses near one another. I considered him a colleague and friend as well as a fellow traveler on the road toward tenure. We mourn his loss and we will miss his intellect, insight, compassion, and humor.”

Professor of Information Qiaozhu Mei said, “Drago has been a tremendous role model for me, as well as many others. His success has been a great source of inspiration since my time as a graduate student. I was extremely fortunate to become a mentee, a colleague, and a co-author of his, and more importantly to call him a friend. In fact, he was the reason I applied to Michigan 15 years ago. I can still remember the day he called me from the airport, amidst his busy schedule traveling between Ann Arbor and New York, to help prepare me for the campus visit. So many memories from our time together are still vivid in my mind, such as co-teaching the first information retrieval course, co-writing my first NSF proposal, and co-writing my first paper at Michigan. I owe a great deal to his mentorship. The most valuable lessons I learned from Drago were to always face the challenges in work and life with the greatest optimism, and to have the courage to excel as a non-native scholar in the academic world. These lessons will continue to have a significant impact on my entire career and life.”

“Drago loved what he did, and his passion was infectious,” said HV Jagadish, the Edgar F. Codd Distinguished University Professor and Bernard A. Galler Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The little bit of NLP I have dabbled in has been entirely due to Drago’s inspiration.  I can trace back to find his influence even on my NLP papers in which he is not a named collaborator.  Drago, also taught me, by his own example, how to deal with adversity:  by seeking a way forward, never complaining, and working twice as hard. Finally, Drago really wanted to inspire the next generation and devoted a great deal of effort into both developing the NACLO Olympiad and for coaching teams that participated.”

Drago was the author of two books, Graph-Based Methods for Natural Language Processing  and Information Retrieval (2011), with Rada Mihalcea, and the two volume set of Puzzles in Logic, Languages and Computation (2013), which brought together the best English-language problems created for students competing in NACLO.

Drago received many recognitions for his contributions to the field. He was a co-recipient of the Gosnell Prize for Excellence in Political Methodology in 2006. He received the U-M UROP Faculty Award for Outstanding Research Mentorship in 2004, and the U-M Faculty Recognition Award in 2013. In 2022, he received the ACL Distinguished Service Award for his longstanding and sustained service in a variety of leadership and service roles. 

He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Yale has invited friends and colleagues to share memories on this memorial website. In addition, a GoFundMe page has been established to help provide support for Drago’s family.