New initiative aims to make the UO a powerhouse in data science

Science library big data screen

Data is everywhere. It’s generated whenever someone logs onto the internet. It’s pulsing through every human, plant and animal. It’s embedded in the pages of history books. It’s buried in the soil.

That’s why the UO is launching a new interdisciplinary initiative to position the university at the cutting edge of the rapidly growing field of data science, which is fundamentally changing society as researchers extract new knowledge and insights from this massive amount of data.

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The UO’s Presidential Initiative in Data Science is one of the first strategic investments funded by the Presidential Fund for Excellence to help elevate the university’s mission through excellence and innovation.

Made possible by a $50 million anonymous gift, the Presidential Fund for Excellence has created new possibilities for expaned research and discovery, student success, and faculty growth.

Watch more at https://president.uoregon.edu/presidential-fund-excellence

The new Presidential Initiative in Data Science will deepen the UO’s educational, training and research programs in data science by supporting and coordinating emerging efforts by faculty across campus. It will also create an intellectual hub for faculty and students that will strengthen the university’s ability to address some of the world’s most pressing questions through data science.

“Data science has been heralded for advancing nearly every kind of intellectual endeavor,” UO President Michael Schill said. “It has the potential to help solve some of society’s greatest challenges, everything from climate change and disease prevention to consumer behavior and economic policies. This is an example of the kind of research and curriculum development that will help raise the quality of the entire university.”

Biologist Bill Cresko will lead the development of the initiative. Cresko outlined a vision and timeline for the new initiative at the December meeting of the UO Board of Trustees. A vision which, he explained, has emerged and evolved through ongoing conversations with faculty members across the university.

In his presentation, Cresko explained why it’s vitally important to grow data science at the UO.

“All science of the future will involve data science and nearly every academic discipline will be transformed as big data analytics becomes increasingly ubiquitous in our world,” Cresko said. “The UO’s deep history of interdisciplinary research combined with its liberal arts approach to education will position us to take an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to understanding data science and turning it into actionable knowledge.”

Many UO faculty members already are incorporating data science into their work and have been working hard to help grow data science at the UO. Cresko pointed to digital humanities, geographic information systems, social media and business analytics, data science for social equity and computational genomics among the many examples of exemplary work in data science at the UO.

The new initiative will build upon existing areas of strength by supporting the current work and will expand data science at the UO by helping recruit top researchers from around the world and creating bridges to advance research and training.

Cresko stressed that these bridges are a cornerstone of the vision for growing data science. The initiative will foster partnerships across different disciplines, with sister institutions in Oregon and along the West Coast, with the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and with key partners in the growing knowledge and data-based economy.

“Researchers from every school and college will have the opportunity to work together to gather, analyze and understand data so it can be translated into material that will impact society,” Cresko said. 

UO prevention scientist Leslie Leve is currently leading a research project that exemplifies the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that this initiative will facilitate.

Leve, a professor in the College of Education, specializes in child development and is examining how a wide swath of environmental factors could influence child health and obesity. For nearly 15 years, Leve relied on traditional educational research methods to probe this question. She used tools like questionnaires and interviews to understand what factors from a child’s home environment and school might influence the child’s development.

But she realized that she could gain a much deeper understanding of child health by partnering with researchers from other disciplines who could collect, analyze and consider large amounts of other relevant data from their respective fields.  

Leve began collaborating with UO biologist Brendan Bohannan and Cresko to use gut and skin microbiome samples to help her examine how genetics and biology influence child development. She’s also working with geographers who are using geocoding to provide information about geographic factors like access to healthy food options, water quality and walkability of the child’s neighborhood.

“When we blend expertise across disciplines and merge data science with more traditional methods, we can really elevate our research and deepen our understanding of these issues,” Leve said. “This data science initiative will empower researchers to use methods, tools and knowledge from other disciplines in new and exciting ways.”

Leve has also partnered with UO philosophy and environmental studies professor Nicolae Morar to consider the ethical implications of using big data as it relates to human agency. Cresko points to this specific collaboration as one of the university’s “uniquely Oregon” strengths in data science.

As a liberal arts institution, the UO has a number of faculty members from philosophy, law, history and other departments who already are considering the ethics of big data and will be critical in conversations about the overarching implications of data science.

“This data science program will provide an intellectual home to bring people together who are asking questions not only about what these data tells us, but also people who question what that information actually means for society and the world,” Cresko said.

The initiative is the first UO program to connect faculty from every school and college under one academic umbrella. A fitting benchmark, since the impetus for the initiative emerged when faculty and deans from across the university identified data science and big data in their respective hiring needs.

It was evident to university leaders that exciting growth in data science was already happening and they could expand and accelerate that progress by hiring more faculty members to collect, analyze and apply data and train students to thrive in the 21st-century economy.

The UO was in an advantageous position to act on the idea, given the depth of current faculty work in the field and the new Research Advanced Computing Services facility, which will provide crucial infrastructure for data science research and training.

A Data Science Visioning Committee will begin meeting in early 2018 to develop a proposal for the provost. Cresko said they will also conduct a thorough market analysis to identify needs and opportunities for data science research and education at the UO. He is working with key constituencies at the UO to build the program quickly, with the goal of reaching national and international prominence in the next decade.

“Building this data science program at the University of Oregon will not only allow us to advance academic fields and research on campus, it will allow us to advance our impact on the world,” Cresko said.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications