Q&A: Institute’s New Director Leads Quest to Glean Wisdom From Data

Philip Bourne, who previously led a major program at the National Institutes of Health, in May became the second director of UVA’s Data Science Institute. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

For Philip Bourne, a leading data science researcher and the new director of the University of Virginia’s Data Science Institute, mining today’s massive data sets for truth and wisdom – and then sharing that insight with others – is an abiding passion.

Bourne came to the University in May from the National Institutes of Health, where he led a major program to coordinate analysis of biomedical research and make it publicly available to international researchers.

Bourne now leads similar efforts at UVA, extending to scientific and technological disciplines across Grounds through collaborations between the institute, schools and departments, and other new UVA institutes dedicated to studies of the brain, the environment, global infections and more.

Research is increasingly complex, requiring new capabilities for storing and analyzing massive data sets to allow investigators to understand how nature works, in both broad and specific areas – from the vastness of the universe, to how diseases spread, how the trillions of neurons in the brain work as a network, to how human interactions with the environment affect the planet we inhabit, and beyond.

Bourne recently offered his thoughts about the Data Science Institute, and data science generally.

Q. Why is data science important?

A. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe calls data “the new oil,” and it’s true. Data is the best resource to be mined for societal well-being.

A multitude of opportunities exist to better manage our world through our growing ability to make sense of and make good use of the data we collect – everything from predictive modeling for customized health care, to managing traffic patterns so we can minimize accidents, to understanding the spread of terrorism by analyzing social media and beyond are within the realm of data science. Every industry, government organization, research institute, and university is touched and improved by our increasing ability to collect and make connections using extremely large data sets.

And the impact will continue to grow. Every two years, the amount of digitized data is equal to all of the data ever collected before. The world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, and data science allows us to effectively and efficiently make use of that knowledge. This is facilitating a societal shift as big as the Industrial Revolution. Such a shift will undoubtedly cause disruption, but I am optimistic that the net gains will far outweigh the negatives.

Q. UVA’s Data Science Institute is now 3 years old, first led by its founding director, computer science professor Don Brown. How well is it working so far?

A. When I was hired as director, the DSI was running like an effective and well-conceived startup. Don and his colleagues at the DSI can be congratulated for their accomplishments in a short time period.

The master’s degree in data science program is rated by Tech Republic as No. 6 in the country – a testament to the reputation already established for this initiative. Our Presidential Fellows in Data Science are doing ground-breaking research in a range of areas using the power of data analytics, and our dual-degree programs with the Darden School of Business, the UVA Medical School, the UVA School of Nursing and Ph.D. programs across the University enhance our collaborative, multidisciplinary approach.

My job now is to build on those successes by developing a strong and extensive data science research and education program ranked at the top of the field.

Q. How will you do that?

A. We are beginning by adding two new data science researchers as general faculty to help lead the way. They will be working in two key areas of the field: machine learning and text mining.

We are also working toward joint tenured and tenure-track faculty appointments with other schools at UVA. We have hired a communications manager and a student records specialist, and will further grow our staff and faculty with leading contributors.

In addition, we are committed to developing a Ph.D. program in data science, which will further encourage highly innovative research in this dynamic field.

Our efforts are in collaboration with UVA’s schools and administration, aiming to help people across Grounds make the most of the emerging field of data science. The institute can serve as the glue that bonds collaborative, multi-disciplinary discoveries addressing society’s most challenging problems.

I like to think of the DSI as a sandbox in which researchers can experiment, and where we can provide resources for best practices in data analytics research and education.

Q. What programs will you expand on that already exist?

A. We will continue to grow our excellent capstone program. The capstone allows our students to collaborate onsite with private sector partners on real-world projects, and it provides a conduit to the workforce when they graduate. The current supply of data scientists is far below demand, so we have a lot of leverage for building this program with corporate support, which we’re looking into as we foster new relationships locally, nationally and internationally.

We also plan to bring corporate researchers to the institute as residents, further exposing our students to the world they will enter, with an additional focus on the fluid area of ethics and data science.

Additionally, we will continue to bring distinguished speakers to Grounds for lectures and conferences.

Q. At NIH, you worked on open-access projects for biomedical research. Will you do the same at UVA?

A. Open access is very important to me, and it’s a Jeffersonian ideal to make what we do on Grounds as publicly open and accessible as possible. It’s an initiative I call “Open UVA” – that data and the knowledge we generate using it should be available to other researchers for the benefit of society.

We are working with the Center for Open Science on an open data lab, providing data and tools for the broader research community.

Q. How has your experience at the University been so far?

A. A real pleasure. This University is exceptionally welcoming and collaborative, and it is in a beautiful location. I’m also excited about the new cross-disciplinary hires at UVA and the ways they will further enhance collaboration, one of the main reasons I came here. We have a history on Grounds of academic excellence and a reputation for curiosity and broad-mindedness. By working together, our future will definitely move upward.

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