Which road intersections are the most dangerous and why? How do sodas and salty snacks affect the microbes in our guts? How does ozone influence photosynthesis in forests?
What unites these research projects at the University of Virginia is an emerging field that has become one of the hottest subjects in higher education: data science.
U-Va. is set to announce Friday the launch of a school of data science, backed by a $120 million gift, the largest private donation to the state’s flagship university in Charlottesville. With the school, U-Va. plans to expand a master’s degree program and soon offer bachelor’s degrees in the subject.
Skeptics have suggested data science is little more than a juiced-up variation of statistics. But proponents say it combines elements of statistics, mathematics, computer science, engineering and other disciplines to harness the power of Big Data for solving a range of problems.
“The topic of data science is all around these days,” U-Va. President James E. Ryan said. “Some people might think it’s faddish, but it’s far from that. The explosion of data and the opportunities it offers across an enormous array of fields to me is nothing short of breathtaking.”
Dozens of colleges and universities offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in data science, according to experts who track the rapidly growing field. Many other schools offer degrees with a similar focus in fields such as data analytics, applied statistics, informatics and computational science.
“There is demand coming from all sides,” said Renata Rawlings-Goss, co-executive director of the South Big Data Innovation Hub, a regional group that promotes data-focused partnerships across industry, education and government in the District of Columbia and 16 states, including Maryland and Virginia.
Rawlings-Goss, a biophysicist at Georgia Tech, said businesses and government agencies want an increasingly data-savvy workforce. “They’re all coming to their local university and saying, ‘Hey, who are you producing who has these skills?’ ” she said.
As often happens in academia, the name and definition of the field is a matter of debate. Yale University solved the problem by renaming its statistics unit the Department of Statistics and Data Science.
Munther Dahleh, director of the four-year-old Institute for Data, Systems and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said data science has four dimensions.
First is probability and statistics, he said, and second is computation — meaning “taking extremely large data sets and turning them algorithmically into something useful.” Third is systems to organize the data. Fourth is applications, connecting the science to urban planning, public health, power grids, ethics — or, as Dahleh said: “You name it. . . . Almost everything.”
David E. Culler, interim dean of data sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, offered a shorter definition: “The ability to make sense of broad observations about a complex world.”
Hundreds of UC-Berkeley students signed up for a data science major that debuted last year.
The introductory class, Foundations in Data Science, expects 1,500 students this spring, which Culler said would make it the largest course on campus. Four years ago, the course had 94 students. Officials say the subject has broad appeal because it is interdisciplinary and provides skills and knowledge useful for numerous careers.
“It’s safe to say the students are truly excited about it,” Culler said. “It’s not just, ‘Well, that’s a checkoff item that I need to get a job.’ It’s truly fulfilling for them. They’re voting with their hearts.”
Caitlin Dreisbach, 29, a graduate student in nursing at U-Va., earned a master’s in data science from the university last year. Among her research interests is how microbes within the human body influence a pregnancy and the health of women and babies before and after birth. That topic, she said, draws on data from obstetrics, microbiological analyses, pre- and postnatal surveys and other sources.
Several years ago, Dreisbach earned bachelor’s degrees in biology from Cornell University and nursing from Johns Hopkins University. When she was an undergraduate, Dreisbach said, she never heard of data science. “Now, I feel like it’s exploding,” she said. “There is such a need. It just became so clear to me that research and the advancement of technology is the name of the game.”
Other master’s students at U-Va. are showing how data science applies to many fields, including environmental science and public health. Last year, a student team analyzed data from Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles to pinpoint the most dangerous intersections in the state. (Among them, for pedestrians, were North Lynn Street/Lee Highway in Arlington and Church Street/Grant Avenue in Manassas.) Another analyzed social media to assess extremist threats, and a third showed how computer algorithms can help a multinational banking firm detect credit card fraud.
“We look at data science as a team sport,” said Philip E. Bourne, a professor of biomedical engineering who is director of U-Va.’s Data Science Institute. “What differentiates it is how you apply it across domains.”
The institute, established in 2013, will fold into the new data science school through support from the latest gift.
The $120 million donation is from the Quantitative Foundation, based in Charlottesville, a private charity associated with a married couple who are U-Va. graduates. Jaffray Woodriff, 49, an investment manager, is a trustee of the foundation, and his wife, Merrill Woodriff, 43, is a director.
The gift, to be disbursed over four years, breaks a previous record for U-Va. set in 2007. In that year, the university announced a $100 million donation from Frank Batten Sr. to create a school of leadership and public policy.
The Quantitative Foundation has previously given $30 million to U-Va., including $10 million to support the Data Science Institute.
“I hold the university very dearly in my heart,” said Jaffray Woodriff, who earned a bachelor’s in finance from U-Va. in 1991. Woodriff said he has been talking with the university about data science for nearly 10 years.
He said he became interested in the subject as he discovered how data analysis and computing gave him a competitive edge in investing. “I was doing my own flavor of data science,” he said.
Creating a school of data science, Woodriff said, “represents a much larger vision.”
U-Va. plans to add $80 million to the venture from its own funding, for a total investment of $200 million. The school, U-Va.’s 12th, will open in fall 2019 or fall 2020.
It will be based in a new building, but Ryan described it as a “school without walls.” The school’s faculty will hold joint appointments in other academic units, and there will be data science “satellites” embedded throughout the university. “It’s historic,” Ryan said. “We don’t open new schools every day.”