Brown CS News

FestivEli Celebrates Eli Upfal, His Career, And His Collaborations

    Click the links that follow for more news about Eli Upfal and other recent accomplishments by our faculty.

    Brown University’s Eli Upfal, Rush C. Hawkins Professor of Computer Science, turned seventy in 2024. To celebrate the occasion, four of his former PhD students invited his many collaborators and colleagues over the years to FestivEli, a series of talks and informal chats about the topics most dear to Eli, and where his contributions have been long-lasting and often trendsetting. Held on May 20-21, 2024, the organizers were Gopal Pandurangan (PhD ‘02, now Professor of Computer Science at the University of Houston, TX), Aris Anagnostopoulos (PhD ‘06, now Professor of Computer Engineering at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy), Matteo Riondato (PhD ‘14, now Associate Professor of Computer Science at Amherst College, MA), and Lorenzo De Stefani (PhD ‘20, now Lecturer of Computer Science at Brown), with support from Brown CS Administration and Finance Manager Lisa Manekofsky.


    During Eli's long career, the organizers note, his interests moved through many different areas of computer science, from parallel algorithms to networks, to computational biology, to data science, with the guiding thread of randomization and probabilistic analysis. Eli had impactful contributions in many such areas, resulting in honors that include ACM and IEEE Fellowships, the 2020 ACM Paris Kanellakis Award, the 2023 RECOMB Test of Time Award, and the 2016 ACM KDD Best Student Paper Award.

    Matteo opened the event by thanking Brown CS for its support and paying tribute to Eli and the community of “amazing collaborators, relationships, and friendships” that he’s built.

    “Over the next two days,” Riondato urged the attendees filling CIT 368, “let’s learn from each other and create connections.”

    Next at the podium, Roberto Tamassia (Chair of the Department of Computer Science and James A. and Julie N. Brown Professor of Computer Science) said he was truly grateful not just for Eli’s prominent research visibility but also for his academic leadership, pointing to his service as department chair and his contributions to the Center for Computational Molecular Biology,  the Data Science Institute, and the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics. He praised Eli’s scholarship, which has continually found new applications, and cheered Eli’s “distinct appreciation for the fine things in life”.

    “Eli has truly embodied the departmental ethos,” Roberto said, “of theory with profound impact on practice.”


    Sixteen talks followed, notable for their diversity of topics (everything from MCMC mean estimation to learning with unknown distribution drift to private streaming graph algorithms with low space) as well as their moments of profound esteem and friendship. Andrei Broder of Google Research opened his talk with memories of days when he and Eli were at Stanford University and there were fewer than a hundred computer science students at the department, drawn together as part of the Algorithms for Lunch Bunch. This section of the talk was warmly illustrated with Andrei’s handwritten records of splendid home-cooked meals shared with Eli: figs in champagne, balcony tomatoes, tongue with capers and couscous. Andrea Pietracaprina and Geppino Pucci of the University of Padova spoke of Eli’s lasting ties to Italy, presenting him with a University of Padova octocentenary sweatshirt and sharing their deep gratitude to him as a friend, mentor and source of inspiration.

    “But beware Eli’s ideas and intuitions,” joked Geppino, “because they will keep you working for decades!”  

    At an open-mic session at the end of the first day, Aris gratefully remembered Eli setting “the rules of the game” for being one of his PhD students: “You won’t be one of the PhDs who disappear.”

    Anna Karlin of the University of Washington noted that Upfal was an inspiration and someone who had played a seminal role as her “unofficial” doctoral advisor: “He was scary, so smart…he’s mellowed over the years!” 


    Traveling all the way from Australia to attend, Brown CS PhD alum Olya Ohrimenko of the University of Melbourne described Eli as an “academic uncle”. “He taught me,” she said, “about research and work/life balance, how to have fun in research…Thank you for the time spent on me, thanks for always being available.” 

    Eli’s son, Ilan Upfal, an electrical engineer, had attendees laughing with stories of father and son co-piloting a remote control helicopter and eating gelato together in Italy as a nine-year-old who couldn’t make much of discussions of balls and boxes. One thing stood out, Ilan said, from their many conversations over the years: “A great intellectual wrestling…how to think, how to question.”

    When the time came for Eli to step up to the podium, he thanked the organizers and all the attendees. Moving through a brief summary of his career, Upfal stressed the importance of working hard and studying hard, but acknowledged the profound impact of luck. He paid tribute to his advisor, Eli Shamir, as an inspiration for not just how to understand problems but how to work with students, then moved forward through time to his arrival at Brown, his term as Brown CS department chair, and the days since. 

    Eli smiled broadly as he brought up a slide with a word cloud featuring the names of the many collaborators that he’s had the good fortune to come to know as close friends. “You, all of you, are a major part of my life,” he said, turning in the last moments of his comments toward a shared future. “Your ideas, your work…we are still working together.”

    For more information, please click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.