Tufts awarded $1.5 million NSF grant for interdisciplinary data science institute

Halligan Hall, where the computer science and electrical engineering departments are housed, is pictured on April 11, 2017. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily Archives

 The Tufts Center for Transdisciplinary Research in Principles Of Data Science (T-TRIPODS) will celebrate its launch on January 31, following the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) $1.5 million grant awarded to Tufts in October 2019 to establish the center.

Funding for T-TRIPODS comes in three annual $500,000 installments from the NSF, which fund alternating and overlapping cycles of research, teaching, and practice, according to the T-TRIPODS website.

Tufts is one of more than a dozen research universities, which include Brown University and the University of California-Berkeley, that the NSF is funding to establish data science institutes through its initiative called “Harnessing the Data Revolution,” which seeks to generate new knowledge and methods in the field of data science.

Professor of Computer Science Lenore Cowen, the principal investigator named in the NSF grant, explained that T-TRIPODS will foster collaborative research and advising, as well as provide summer academic opportunities, workshops and conferences to undergraduate students, graduate students and professional personnel.

Cowen added that she hopes that T-TRIPODS will be a center of expertise and will foster connections between disciplines.

“T-Tripods is ‘grounded’ in the 3 departments of Math, [Computer Science] and [Electrical and Computer Engineering] at Tufts,” Cowen said in an email. “But we will connect with many other departments and initiatives at Tufts, even across the different Tufts schools and campuses.

Cowen noted that T-TRIPODS Institute already has relationships with the Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC) and the Center for STEM Diversity.

Cowen also framed T-TRIPODS’ goal of encouraging participation in the field of data science as timely, given recent technological trends.

“We are living in a world where massive amounts of data can be collected,” Cowen said. “If deployed correctly and thoughtfully, there is a tremendous opportunity to advance scientific research and education.”

Over the last several years, Tufts has started to consolidate its expertise and add new undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the field of data science, according to Eric Miller, professor and chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering.

Miller, one of the co-principal investigators named by the NSF grant, explained that T-TRIPODS’ areas of study will include Graphs and Tensors, Data with a Spatial or Temporal Dimension, and Data Guarantees of ethical practice, but not be limited to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) applications alone.

“There will be opportunities, for example, to apply Data Science to the Humanities, or with folks downtown in the School of Nutrition Science and Policy,” Miller said. “This is for more than just hardcore computer science electrical engineers and math majors.”

Miller also explained that T-TRIPODS will have undergraduate summer research programs in data science, though these programs are still in the planning stages.

Ellise LaMotte, director of the Center for STEM Diversity, added that in addition to T-TRIPODS’ research opportunities, the mentor-mentee relationships that this center encourages can be crucial to a STEM student’s development.

“The Center for STEM Diversity is collaborating with the T-TRIPODS Faculty team to introduce and include underrepresented students in data science-related research opportunities available during the summer,” LaMotte wrote in an email.

Aside from increasing participation in the field of data science, T-TRIPODS aims to bring data science principles and approaches to disciplines as diverse as biomedical data, education, cognitive science, and the humanities, Cowen explained.

An example of this is one of T-TRIPODS’ interdisciplinary projects, called Smart Cities. Laurie Baise, professor and chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering, described how her focus area of “Smart Cities, Development and Design” connects with T-TRIPODS.

“We have many research projects related to data collection and analysis around infrastructure and cities,” Baise wrote in an email. “TRIPODS will facilitate collaborations across UEP/Econ/CS/ECE/Math.”

Baise added that T-TRIPODS and the Smart Cities focus group have already begun planning a seminar series. In the spirit of the institute’s interdisciplinary nature, the seminars will be hosted by the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Economics, and Urban and Environmental Planning. 

Miller explained that the first round of TRIPOD Institutes was funded by the NSF three years ago, and the grant that Tufts received was part of the second round of funding to establish these institutes.

According to the NSF website, there is an additional, long-term phase to the TRIPOD initiative. The first phase sought to establish a number of small collaborative institutes, such as the one at Tufts; the second phase will seek to support a few larger research institutes from the smaller collaborative ones already in operation.

Miller explained that Tufts might collaborate with other universities in the greater Boston area and beyond to apply for this second phase of funding.

“We would look locally and probably nationally at other TRIPODS institutes that we could team up with,” Miller said. “The hope is that in these three years we will gain expertise and momentum, and when it is finishing up we will have the wherewithal to go out and either lead or participate in these larger-scale efforts.”