News Release

Elham Azizi vs. cancer: Fighting the disease with data, AI, and math

Azizi is recognized for her breakout work in computational cancer immunology. Get to know what drives this leader in her research and the importance of diverse voices in science.

Grant and Award Announcement

Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

Elham Azizi


Elham Azizi in the lab.

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Credit: Credit: Timothy Lee/Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center

Elham Azizi is on a mission to better understand the complexities of cancer through the design of sophisticated data-driven computational methods. Her motivation, like many of her peers in the field, is to be able to identify and predict what drives cancer growth in the hopes of improving therapies that work best for each individual patient. 

Named the 2024 Early-Career Scientist, as part of the Innovators in Science Award administered by the New York Academy of Sciences and sponsored by Takeda, Azizi is a rising star in the field of computational cancer immunology. This award, which is given to only one early-career scientist selected across the globe, after multiple rounds of institute nominations and reviews, recognizes her development of a suite of computational tools and models that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to characterize immune profiles in the tumor microenvironment.

Azizi’s novel machine-learning algorithms are applied to data from genomic and imaging technologies, guiding improved and personalized cancer therapies. Her work has helped identify immune components involved in anti-tumor responses and characterize immune states that promote tumor progression and response to immunotherapy. Her innovative models have identified, for the first time, determinants of immunotherapy response in leukemia.

A rising star

Azizi has been racking up major prizes and honors nonstop since she was a teenager, when she won an international award on “First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics.” Born in Tehran, Iran, she spent her elementary school years in Australia while her father studied urban planning. In 1996, the family moved back to Tehran, where she went to middle/high school and then to Sharif University of Technology. She was fascinated by how things work in nature and chose the engineering/math track rather than the biology/chemistry one, despite holding deep interests for biology, too. “I was really drawn to the elegance of math, data analysis, and the practical application of sciences,” she explains.

Global education

In 2008, she received her B.S. in electrical engineering, specializing in signal processing, with a minor in industrial engineering. By her senior year, the science world was rapidly changing: There were huge advances in genomics, and scientists were uncovering the DNA code and exploring the genetic basis of diseases. Intrigued by the emerging genomic technologies, Azizi decided to pursue a more interdisciplinary education. She consequently went to Boston University (BU), where she earned her M.S. in electrical engineering, focused on machine learning and signal processing, in 2010. She took a course at MIT in computational biology that transformed her future. 

“I was fascinated at the idea of leveraging the power of machine learning and computation to impact people’s health,” she says. “The Human Genome Project demanded methods to analyze, interpret, and compare complex data, all things I love to explore, and so I decided that this new field of bioinformatics was the one for me.”

Bioinformatics and beyond

Azizi received her PhD in bioinformatics from BU in 2014 with a thesis that embraced biology, engineering, computation, and data analysis: “Modeling Gene Regulatory Networks through Data Integration.” After research stints at BU (biomedical engineering), Harvard (statistics), and Microsoft Research (cancer genomics), she came to Columbia University where she worked as a postdoctoral research scientist with Dana Pe’er, a preeminent researcher in computational biology. Pe’er moved to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 2016 and Azizi went with her as a postdoctoral research fellow.

During her postdoctoral training, Azizi pioneered the use of probabilistic models in the analysis of single-cell genomic data and applied them to tackle statistical challenges specific to heterogeneous and complex clinical data. She successfully used these computational tools to characterize diverse cell states in the normal breast tissue and tumor microenvironment and has also applied them to other cancer systems. 

Welcome to Morningside

In 2020, Azizi joined Columbia with a joint appointment: assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cancer Data Research (in the Herbert and Florence Institute for Cancer Dynamics and in the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center). She is also affiliated with the computer science department and the Data Science Institute. In just the past four years, she has built several frameworks that model temporal and spatial dynamics of cell states determining therapy response or disease progression, including one that has helped define responses to immunotherapy for the first time in human leukemia and one that has unlocked new insights into immunosuppressive niches enriched in a rare and aggressive subtype of breast cancer.

The inclusive Azizi lab

In building her lab at Columbia Engineering, Azizi has been dedicated to empowering the next generation by creating an inclusive, diverse, and equitable community of young scientists. In Iran, as a high school and college female student, she lived in a state of constant oppression, including often being stopped by the Iranian morality police and guards who harassed her and her friends about what they were wearing. 

“As a young person, I lived in a state that expects women to conform to their traditional roles,” she says, “and there was continual fear and distress at all levels. We were not treated in the same way as our male contemporaries and coping with this was profoundly painful. This kind of exclusion over time erodes your confidence, without your even noticing. So it’s crucial to me to be supportive, to be for my students the kind of mentor I had, and create a welcoming and open community in my lab.”

Collaborations for innovation

Azizi continues to collaborate with the Pe’er lab, as well as the labs of Catherine Wu (Harvard) and Alexander Rudensky (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center). She has also started several new collaborations across both the Columbia Morningside and Columbia University Irving Medical Center campuses.

“I am so honored to receive the Innovators in Science Award,” Azizi says. “This is a wonderful recognition of our work and reinforces our commitment to moving forward in cancer immunology and finding solutions to the complex challenges our patients face.”

Building momentum

Azizi has won numerous awards and honors, including the Allen Distinguished Investigator Award (2023), NHGRI Award for Supporting Talented Early Career Researchers in Genomics (2023), CZI Science Diversity Leadership Award (2022), NSF CAREER Award (2022), the Tri-Institutional Breakout Prize for Junior Investigators (2019), NIH NCI Pathway to Independence Award (2018), an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship (2017), and an IBM Best Paper Award at the New England Statistics Symposium (2014). 

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