Campus community remembers professor, bioinformatics expert

Hagit Shatkay, a University of Delaware professor and bioinformatics expert, passed away on Jan. 2, 2022.

Dr. Shatkay served as a professor at the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences (CIS) and Department of Biomedical Engineering, as well as at the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and the Data Science Institute. Her research interests focused on biomedical computing, computational biomedicine and computational methods in the sciences, including biology, medicine and physics. She was an expert in machine learning and data science methods as applied to scientific and biomedical data.

“Hagit was one of the most principled people I have ever met, and one of the most caring for her students — and, by extension, her colleagues,” said Kathleen McCoy, her colleague in CIS and the department’s former chair. “She demanded much and had extremely high standards, but also provided so much mentorship. She gave very freely of her time, and she was always more than willing to help students and faculty succeed. She was quite a role model.”

She was such a role model for Pengyuan Li, who worked with Dr. Shatkay during his doctoral program from 2015 to 2021. Beyond guiding him through his academic work, she also shared life wisdom that helped shape him into the researcher and person he is today.

Dr. Shatkay-Reshef (far right) enjoys a dinner out with her students prior to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Pengyuan Li.

“She always encouraged us to do something, even when we thought we couldn’t,” Li said. “I hope I can help carry on that legacy.”

Li and Dr. Shatkay most recently worked on developing applied machine learning and computer science methods to classify documents based on information conveyed in images and captions, with the aim of improving medical research.

Li said he will always remember that meetings with Dr. Shatkay usually went beyond symbols and data.

“She bought bagels for every group meeting, filling our stomachs while also filling our minds,’” Li recalled.

Moumita Bhattacharya, a former student of Dr. Shatkay’s and now a senior research scientist at Netflix research, said Dr. Shatkay was not only a stellar academic mentor, but also one of the biggest influences on her life.

“Dr. Shatkay had unparalleled integrity and work ethic, and an unwavering pursuit of the highest standards,” Bhattacharya said. “Very few people in my life have influenced and inspired me the way she has and I will be eternally grateful to her for all her time, guidance and training. She was an incredible scientist, a deep thinker, with an outlook towards goodness in the world that is hard to come by and above all she was a kind and generous human being.”

In addition to her work with students, Dr. Shatkay served on several editorial and review boards for American and Canadian government agencies, as well as for scientific publications and journals. During her career, she coauthored dozens of peer-reviewed publications, which have been cited thousands of times.

In a 2016 photo, Dr. Shatkay-Reshef works with Roselle Abraham of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Heart and Vascular Institute on a study developing methods to improve the information that can be gleaned from ‘fuzzy’ EKG and echocardiogram images.

Over the last five years, Dr. Shatkay worked closely with her CIS colleague, Cecilia Arighi, on a research project funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

Arighi, an associate professor, said she was amazed by Dr. Shatkay’s passion as she described her work. Together, they and other researchers worked to incorporate image-based features into biomedical document classification, which would advance the technologies needed to more quickly and efficiently access a wide-range of biomedical information.

“Hagit was very rigorous and had a strong work ethic, which I really admired,” Arighi said. “We both lived minutes away in Rockville, Maryland, and I have many fond memories of our work meetings in random coffee shops. She will be deeply missed.”

In one of her latest research endeavors, funded by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Shatkay sought to develop computational methods that would accelerate data-intensive discovery in astroparticle physics, with a goal of better understanding dark matter.

“Hagit has been an inspiration to us all, not just for her distinguished scholarship and amazing accomplishments as a professor and a mentor, but also for her integrity and passion,” said Cathy Wu, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. Wu, Dr. Shatkay’s colleague in CIS, recruited Dr. Shatkay to UD in 2010.

“She remained a fighter in combating terminal illness. I am grateful to be able to pay tribute to Hagit through a collaboration with her last December in nominating her as Fellow of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) to recognize her outstanding contribution to the fields,” Wu said.

The ISCB Fellow nomination described Dr. Shatkay as being “among the pioneers of biomedical text mining introducing text as another characteristic type of  biological/genomic/proteomic data, which helps shed light on other molecular data. She has also been a first to introduce the integration of images into text mining, and one of the first to introduce similarity queries over sequential/temporal clinical data.”

Dr. Shatkay received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and earned her doctoral degree in computer science from Brown University in 1999.

She served as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Biotechnology Information before spending two years as a private-sector informatics research scientist at Celera Genomics. She returned to academia as an assistant professor at Queen’s University in 2004, where she worked until joining UD’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences as an associate professor in fall 2010. She joined the Center for Biomedical Engineering Research that same year and was promoted to full professor in 2018.

Dr. Shatkay-Reshef wrote this kind, congratulatory note to her former student Pengyuan Li after his recent completion of his doctoral thesis. Photo courtesy of Pengyuan Li.

Students, faculty and colleagues have filled an online tribute wall with their condolences and memories with Dr. Shatkay, from childhood stories to her passion for education to recollections of her kindness, infectious smile, dedication and willingness to share her expertise.

“It hurts beyond words to acknowledge that she is no longer with us but I will keep striving to live by her teachings and principles,” Bhattacharya wrote. “You will always remain in our hearts and your teachings in our actions.”

Services will be held privately. To make a donation in Dr. Shatkay’s memory, please give to the Capital Area Food Bank or another food bank of your choice.

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Ambre Alexander and courtesy of Pengyuan Li | January 20, 2022