Named one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2012, Flaxman is known as “the Nate Silver of public health,” David Rein, a principal research scientist in the Public Health Research Division of NORC at the University of Chicago, tells OZY. And in that sense, he’s part of a big data movement that is growing globally and is being applied to everything from public health to housing. Just as Silver applies models to different polls to forecast elections and baseball games, Flaxman applies DisMod-MR to studies of different diseases to compare their effects — an important contribution, Rein says, that helps policymakers design interventions and allocate resources to those who most need them.
But unlike the prototypically awkward, shuffling coder, Flaxman speaks in confident earnest. He credits his Reformed Jewish upbringing with planting the seeds of social consciousness early on. He caught the coding bug before he even set foot in kindergarten, at a computer camp where he wrote programs that drew flowers onscreen. Then he kindled his passion for theoretical mathematics in high school. While Flaxman went on to major in mathematics at MIT and earn a Ph.D. in the subject at Carnegie Mellon University, he, like many sullen Gen Xers, also wanted to withdraw from the world. (Naturally, theoretical mathematics offered the perfect retreat.) He also flirted with computer science and landed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Microsoft Theory Group, which tackles fundamental problems in math and computer science — without worrying about whether its research will contribute to the company’s bottom line.