Stan Ahalt studies society through a data lens

Data literacy is essential for tomorrow’s workforce, says the UNC School of Data Science and Society dean.

Stan Ahalt talking to interim chancellor Lee Roberts.
As the UNC School of Data Science and Society prepares for its first cohort of students pursuing a bachelor's in data science, Dean Stan Ahalt says much more growth is on the horizon. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When the UNC School of Data Science and Society launched in 2022, it was the first school UNC-Chapel Hill had started from scratch in over 70 years. By spring 2023, the school had a strategic plan and approval for its first degree, the Master of Applied Data Science program. Its first students began classes in January 2024.

In fall 2024, the school will offer a Bachelor of Science in data science and the College of Arts & Sciences will offer a Bachelor of Arts in data science, both developed collaboratively with the College and other schools. Last year, the school awarded six seed grants to teams across campus in different areas.

“We went quickly from nothing to having a program that people are now enrolled in. We’re hiring another 15 faculty members, many of which are joint appointments with other schools on campus,” said Stan Ahalt, the school’s inaugural dean.

Here’s what Ahalt had to say about the school and its future.

Why is it important to study data science across disciplines?

Computers are at the forefront of everything we do. Those computers, whether they’re in your watch or in your car, create data. That data is an opportunity for us to understand ourselves and natural phenomena better.

We emphasize multidisciplinary research because data science permeates all disciplines. Science, the arts, and the humanities can all be studied through the lens of data. Data has made its way into disciplines that I would not necessarily have thought of previously, but where it’s obvious that there’s a reason to study it in a more quantitative way. We’ve focused on serving as a hub and creating connected spokes to other disciplinary areas. I’m hoping that we stimulate a new wave of science that is more team-oriented than in the past.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the Bachelor of Science program?

The primary goal is to create an option for students to become data scientists at the undergraduate level. The B.A. and B.S. degrees can apply to any disciplinary area should students want to double major. Over a thousand students are in the data science minor, and we’ve seen significant demand for these degrees. It’s clear that the need was there.

Being data literate is an essential skill for almost any graduate. A workforce trained in data science is one that’s going to be more prepared for the future. Many established and emerging market leaders see a lot of opportunity in the Triangle region but haven’t seen as many technically trained graduates as they would like. With this new degree, we’re increasing our impact by giving students skills that fit into jobs across every possible disciplinary area.

How do the new programs support the University’s public service mission?

We’ve established relationships with industry folks locally and across the state. We also made connections to our state government because they understand the utility and necessity of data science today. There are many ways for a data scientist to positively impact society. Certainly, the pandemic helped us understand that role of data in decision-making. We were trying to use a data-driven approach to suppress the pandemic and save as many lives as possible.

We need to work hard as data scientists to understand people’s perspectives when we’re asking them to allow us to collect their data to help them. We don’t want passive scientists who just gather data, go away and then bring back something. We want to help in a more collaborative way. We need to teach people the skills of being with the community that they’re helping. I think the only way you really get a deep understanding of communities is to spend time with them and understand their ethos and bring that to bear on your problem-solving.

How is the school approaching AI?

We’re figuring out how to accelerate the use of AI around campus in responsible ways. Many of our faculty are using AI to do interesting things, like finding interventions for diseases. AI shows us the utility and the incredible value of data. Data is the new oil, and we need to be able to refine it and turn it into products that help us shape our society in the right direction.

How will the school keep pace with changes in this field?

Compared to teaching curricula, data science is a fast-changing universe. A curriculum does mutate over time but relatively slowly. We’re going to have to pivot and make decisions in a more agile way than we’re accustomed to in the academy. We need to have a culture of flexibility so that we don’t get locked into teaching courses we taught 10 years ago when they aren’t needed. We’ll need to stay at the forefront if we want to maximize our impact.