Data Intensive Studies Center aims to transform research at Tufts

Simin Meydani, Vice Provost for Research at Tufts University, poses for a photograph on August 25, 2016. (Courtesy Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Tufts’ initiative to increase data science research and education, first outlined in the T10 Strategic Plan in 2013 has made progress with the creation  of the Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC) this fall and its first all-day symposium next Wednesday. With the creation of DISC, Tufts hopes to bring together both students and faculty to better utilize data science in ways that are relevant to understanding the world today.

Vice Provost for Research Simin Nikbin Meydani is spearheading the implementation and creation of DISC. She works jointly with an advisory committee made up of Tufts faculty from all schools and Eric Hughes, who works for MITRE Corporation. 

DISC was created after the T10 Strategic Plan identified a need for additional expertise and interest in the data area, according to Meydani. Meydani works closely with University Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris and University President Anthony Monaco to lead the data science initiative.

Meydani identified DISC as a center for data that will address educational, research and service needs. Bruce Boghosian, a professor of mathematics and a member of the DISC Advisory Committee, similarly explained the breakdown of the DISC’s three initiatives.

“I’d think of it as maybe 50 percent research, 30 percent teaching and pedagogy and 20 percent as a service organization to the rest of the university,” Boghosian said.

He emphasized that spearheading research is the primary goal of DISC. By bringing people within the Tufts community together  — in addition to bringing in notable outside researchers — DISC aims to catalyze those interactions and make progress in the realm of data science. DISC will aim to help the Tufts community overcome problems they have encountered in their research by making resources accessible and applicable to all, Boghosian said. 

“We want to be a university that is on the forefront of these new techniques,” Boghosian said. “We want to develop the fundamental science underlying data science: new algorithms, new machine-learning methods, new artificial intelligence methods, all of these things. But we also want to be the university that uses them in the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, as well as the STEM field.”

Meydani expanded on these goals, adding that she sees data science programs as essential to the advancement of research.

“We hope to bring together faculty and trainees to create synergy around studying the science of data and applying the tools of data science to specific areas of interest,” Meydani stated.

According to Meydani, an immediate goal for DISC is to bring on a director to lead the center. The Advisory Committee is currently identifying potential candidates and hopes to have the director start in fall of 2018, Meydani said.

The university’s initiative to expand data science opportunities has also involved the potential development of a data science major, as described in a September 2016 Daily article. Data science majors are being developed through both the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. Meydani explained that she hopes to have the major available by fall 2018 under the School of Engineering; she added the program would have connections with DISC. Boghosian noted that the data science major under the School of Arts and Sciences is taking longer to develop, and other potential majors or minors for topics related to data science are still in conversation.

While Boghosian said there was overwhelming consensus from Tufts faculty that a data science center was necessary, he noted the challenge of reaching a shared understanding of what data science and DISC would mean for the university. Peter Levine, the associate dean for research at Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and a member of the Advisory Committee, also identified this difficulty.

“People from different disciplines have diverse perspectives on Big Data, and it will take time for us to build an intellectual community in which people can learn from each other across those lines,” Levine told the Daily in an email.

DISC is aiming to further its goal of collaboration through its fall symposium next week by providing an opportunity to meet others in the field, as well as providing a networking opportunity for both students and faculty. Meydani noted that the symposium will include keynote presentations, panel discussions and poster sessions, and that it will be a forum for students to hear about data science, become interested in it and apply it to their studies.

“[The symposium] will provide a venue for students to hear from the best experts in this area about the science of data and the applications of data science to different domains that would be of interest,” Meydani said.

Data science plays a vital role in today’s world and is especially prevalent in the future world, Meydani said. She added that it is crucial for universities to have programs for students to learn how to make meaningful interpretations from data.

“One of the major problems is misinterpretation of data,” she said. “My hope is for all university students to graduate with the ability to work with big data in a way that enables them to make accurate judgments about information.”

Levine also identified the importance of understanding how to use data science for all majors. 

“Almost all disciplines are turning to Big Data — from classical languages to cancer research …. This shift is exciting and promises important discoveries,” Levine said. “We must both improve our capacity to use Big Data and investigate its drawbacks and dangers.”

This is a transformative time in academia, Boghosian said, due to the pertinence of data sciences in today’s world of research. Boghosian added that DISC is a timely initiative that will not only help the research done at Tufts, but will make the school a leader in the rapidly growing field of data science.

“[Data science] is completely transforming the academic endeavor in every fundamental way. It’s perhaps the biggest change in the way that research and academics are conducted in a significant amount of time,” Boghosian said. “It’s transforming the way that one does research, the way that one poses scientific questions, the way that one goes about answering those questions. And the ability to gather, store, curate, analyze and draw conclusions from research has never been greater.”

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