Fiscal Year 2021
Brown University Financial Report

Making an Impact: The Data Science Initiative

Brown’s Data Science Initiative has a mission to expand data science research at Brown while preparing students to thrive in a data-enabled society.

Already, Brown stands at the leading edge of the data revolution. Computer scientists have made path-breaking advances in database management and machine learning, while biostatisticians have used data to improve lung cancer screening and move health care toward more precise, personalized care. The Data Science Initiative (DSI) connects data-centered approaches to questions in environmental science, engineering, physics, medicine and public health, public policy, the humanities and elsewhere.

Professor Sohini Lorin
Professor Sohini Ramachandran is a professor of biology and the director of DSI and Brown’s Center for Computational Molecular Biology.

One approach DSI has used to stimulate data-driven research is offering flexible seed funding to Brown faculty across campus to build new data-related collaborative research projects. Projects funded have ranged from research into how social media bots may influence online discussion about climate change to the use of data from wrist sensors to predict complications that may arise in patients after a stroke. In another project, a team led by engineering professor Ian Wong used a branch of mathematics called topology to analyze images of cell clusters and make key predictions about the cell types present. Such a system could one day help understand wound healing processes or better assess how aggressive a cancerous tumor may be.

These kinds of projects not only address critical real-world research questions, they also provide insight into how data science tools can be adapted to answer fundamental questions in a variety of fields of inquiry.

Along with catalyzing new research, the DSI and Department of Computer Science have partnered to launch an undergraduate certificate program in data fluency, designed to provide fundamental conceptual knowledge and technical skills to students with a range of intellectual backgrounds and concentrations. For a deeper dive into data, DSI offers a master’s program focusing on foundational mathematical and computational techniques, while enabling students to explore particular applications of their choice.

In 2019, the DSI launched the Data Science Fellows program led by Linda Clark, a lecturer in data science, and the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. As part of a for-credit class, undergraduate students serve as consultants and collaborators with faculty members looking to add data science elements to their courses. Over the past two years, fellows have helped to reshape classes spanning neuroscience to environmental science to history.

My goal for the Data Science Initiative is to ensure that those most in need are not the last to benefit from fundamental research in data science or data-driven applied research. Brown is the perfect place for an inclusive, collaborative approach to data science in which we equally value data generation and methods development.

Sohini Ramachandran DSI Director

Students have helped develop course modules for mapping food access in vulnerable communities. A mathematics and computer science concentrator worked with Sydney Skybetter, a lecturer in theater arts and performance studies, on a method of using body measurement data to interpret dance movements. A religious studies concentrator worked with Elsa Belmont Flores, a lecturer in language studies, to develop a way of using data science techniques to study lineages of Arabic names.

The Future of the DSI Is Bright

Murchison Widefield Array
Murchison Widefield Array: Jonathan Pober, an assistant professor of physics, works with researchers at the Murchison Widefield Array, a radio telescope that is currently searching for signals from the cosmic dawn — the moment when the first stars lit up the universe. Picking out that faint signal in a sea of intergalactic noise is fundamentally a data science problem. Data analysis techniques developed by Pober and his colleagues have brought researchers closer than ever to picking out that elusive signal.

Now under the direction of Sohini Ramachandran, a professor of biology and also director of Brown’s Center for Computational Molecular Biology, the DSI has recently added two data science faculty members. Karianne Bergen, an assistant professor of data science and earth, environmental and planetary sciences, uses machine learning techniques to detect earthquake activity. Roberta DeVito, an assistant professor of data science and biostatistics, develops techniques for studying highly complex and highly dimensional datasets, such as those that often occur in healthcare and medical settings.

More faculty will be added soon, including Suresh Venkatasubramanian, who will work with Seny Kamara, a professor of computer science, to form a new DSI center called Computing for the People. The center will investigate the ways in which artificial intelligence, algorithms and other data systems often fail to serve marginalized populations, and look for ways to rebalance power to better serve those populations in the further development of computational systems.

The new initiative is a key part of Ramachandran’s vision for the DSI moving forward: to make sure that Brown is on the cutting edge of developing and deploying data technologies, but also that the University is a leader in making sure data technologies are used fairly, equitably and for the good of all.