Harvard Kicks Off Data Science Initiative With Seminar

Harvard marked the official launch of a new Data Science Initiative Monday afternoon, kicking off a multi-year plan aimed at bringing the University to the forefront of the field.

Richard D. McCullough, vice provost of research, organized the launch event as part of what spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga called a five-year plan dedicated to expanding Harvard’s data science programs. Francesca Dominici, a Biostatistics professor at the School of Public Health, and Computer Science professor David C. Parkes were appointed co-directors of the Data Science Initiative earlier this spring. Dominici said the initiative is part of a broad effort “to empower the faculty” across all disciplines to get involved with data science.

At this first event, two professors discussed how they use data science in their work. Isaac S. Kohane, a Bioinformatics professor at the Medical School, criticized the lack of data science usage in medicine right now. Drawing on examples from autism to potentially carcinogenic foods, Kohane said the proper use of data science is crucial to the medical field.

“The best way to is to change medical education, to actually make doctors think of medicine as a data processing endeavor,” Kohane said.

Following Kohane, Computer Science professor Cynthia Dwork presented the applications of data science in statistically ensuring digital privacy. Dwork said offering guarantees of privacy for potential survey respondents or subjects of study could lead to more revealing, statistically backed findings in several areas of research.

“Maybe a strong privacy guarantee like this will encourage people allow their data to be used for this kind of study,” she said.

In attendance were some of the eight new Data Science Postdoctoral Fellows that arrived this fall. More than 150 proposals were received for the positions, and the eight fellows were chosen in March. Statistics professor Joseph K. Blitzstein—who teaches the third-most enrolled in class at Harvard, Statistics 110: Introduction to Probability—also attended.

Though few undergraduates attended the event, Blitzstein said that “hopefully, with the Data Science Initiative, we’ll be seeing more and more events at all levels.”

Kohane noted that the initiative launch preceded Brown University’s data science initiative launch by one day. Several other Ivy League Schools have started similar initiatives, including Yale, which announced its new “Department of Statistics and Data Science” in March.

Blitzstein said that it’s important that Harvard recognizes the importance and applications of data.

“We’re not doing it first,” he said, “but I think we’re doing it right.”

To conclude, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’77 emphasized the need for data science as an inseparable part of disciplines ranging from medicine to English literature.

“It is the breadth of our academic activity that’s going to make this immensely to us,” Garber said. “It’s a tremendous time for this field at Harvard, and we need to bring the resources here.”

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22.