Opening doors through data

The UNC School of Data Science and Society is slated to open in the fall of 2022. Jay Aikat, RENCI’s chief operating officer, discusses its origins and why data science is so vital in today’s world.

A women looking at data on a screen.

On Jan. 26, RENCI hosted the first iteration of Carolina Data Science Now, a monthly seminar series that aims to illuminate the interdisciplinary nature of data science and foster a community of faculty and staff who want to connect with other data science researchers and practitioners outside of their fields.

This effort — which highlights both the data scientists behind the tools that make this field possible and the researchers using or creating large data sets for their projects — will build momentum for the UNC School of Data Science and Society, slated to open in the fall of 2022.

Carolina faculty, researchers, and administrators have been working together to create the school for about a decade. In 2017, the University charged the first committee to start thinking big about data science at UNC-Chapel Hill, which led to the idea for a data science institute and, ultimately, the creation of the SDSS under former Provost Bob Blouin’s leadership.

Jay Aikat, the chief operating officer at RENCI and a research professor in the computer science department, has participated in almost every committee for establishing the school. UNC Research spoke with Aikat recently to learn about the school’s origins and why data science is so vital in today’s world.

Why start a school dedicated to data science?

Working with data, collecting data, analyzing data, telling the story through data — that’s not new. So many of us have been doing this for a long time. I was working with hundreds of gigabytes of network data over a decade ago, and I never thought I was doing data science. There are lots of people on campus doing similar things, working with data. That is precisely why we need to have a school.

The marketplace needs data scientists in all sorts of disciplines. Examples include banking and high finance, the humanities, public health, and technology. Our students want to have access to degrees in data science. That’s really the driving force for the school. We also have a lot of folks doing data science research at UNC, and this is another way to have a converging place for faculty and researchers across various disciplines.

Why is data science so interdisciplinary? Why connect all these researchers?

Think about some of the big problem areas of today: public health, climate change, equity. These are massive issues that we face as a society. No one discipline can solve these problems. They are better solved when you bring in researchers across various disciplines to collectively attack these challenges and come up with meaningful solutions. You need the domain experts who understand the data to work with the experts in the foundational areas who are advancing the tools and technologies to work with the humanists and social scientists so that we not only come up with excellent solutions but the right solutions for humanity at large.

Who will oversee the school once it launches?

At this time, the plan is that the provost and chancellor will select an internal candidate who will serve as the academic lead for the school, and that person will lead the implementation for the school. Then, there will be a search for the inaugural dean.

How can faculty and staff start engaging with the school?

Through Carolina Data Science Now and the multidisciplinary research clusters that we will build soon. They will bring together researchers from both the foundational and application areas of data science across campus. So far in the Carolina Data Science Now series, we’ve featured humanists and social scientists using data science tools to further their research.

In our upcoming monthly seminar sessions, we will bring in public health experts, followed by computer scientists and statisticians to talk about the foundational work they are doing to advance the field. Once the school is up and running, its leaders will take over this seminar series. There will be many teaching and research opportunities for faculty and staff to engage with the school. The success of data science at Carolina will depend on the strength of these collaborations.

What will your role with the school be?

Whatever is needed of me. I am excited to get this launched and implemented successfully.

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