Columbia Spectator | Special Issue

Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering brings together faculty from across University

  • Avi Schwarzschild for Spectator
    BIG DATA | Kathleen McKeown, a computer science professor, heads the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, which has faculty researching topics ranging from cancer treatment to Netflix suggestions.

This story is part of a special issue examining the history and future of the School of Engineering and Applied Science in its 150 year. Check out the rest of the issue here.

Using accurate urban models to assess how autonomous robots can better understand their environment. Identifying the molecular signatures useful for cancer treatment. Using social media as a proxy for finding suitable Netflix suggestions. These are just some of the ongoing research projects that Columbia’s Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering is tackling in its first two years.

The IDSE was established in June 2012, with the help of a $15 million grant as part of the city’s Applied Sciences NYC Initiative. 

“The institute is important because data is so pervasive in today’s world,” IDSE director and computer science professor Kathleen McKeown, said. “It spans across nearly every discipline at the University.”

The institute is bringing together over 200 faculty from a wide range of academic departments and is divided into six centers: Foundations of Data Science, Smart Cities, New Media, Health Analytics, Financial Analytics, and Cybersecurity. Affiliated members say that this interdisciplinary approach is the institute’s greatest strength. 

“IDSE offers a vibrant environment in which researchers in various disciplines can learn from each other’s work and collaborate,” Dimitris Anastassiou, electrical engineering professor and affiliated member of the Health Analytics center, said.

“The cross-pollination of interdisciplinary research is an important part of how science needs to be conducted in the 21st century,” Peter Allen, a computer science professor and affiliated member of the New Media and Smart Cities centers, said.

“These types of partnerships are mutually beneficial,” McKeown said. “Our faculty members are exposed to a wide range of new technologies.”

Professors involved in the Data Science institute said that it has helped them make connections between departments that would have never otherwise happened.

“The data science institute connects together students and faculty in different departments who otherwise might not interact,” Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science and an affiliated member of the Foundations of Data Science center, said.

“I submitted a proposal for a grant with someone from the nursing school,” John Paisley, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and another affiliated member of the Foundations of Data Science Center, said. “We probably wouldn’t have been linked together if it weren’t for IDSE.”

The scope of the institute’s research is so broad that some connections cross sciences-humanities barriers.

“These days, data is big, with implications not only for the natural and social sciences but also humanities such as history and English,” Bruce Kogut, a business professor and affiliated member of the institute’s Financial Analytics Center, said.

“I’ve worked with faculty from the comparative literature department analyzing 19th-century novels,” McKeown said.

A 2012 press release from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the IDSE is expected to generate $4 billion in economic activity over the next 30 years and help create more than 4,500 jobs. The initial agreement with the city also included the hiring of 75 new faculty and 44,000 square feet of space renovated from existing facilities in the Northwest Corner Building and the Seeley W. Mudd Building. Though the IDSE may expand to Manhattanville or the Columbia University Medical Center, McKeown said that nothing has been planned for now. 

Paul Glasserman, another business professor and affiliated member of the Financial Analytics Center, said that these new faculty will be important to future research at Columbia.

“Getting the right dedicated staff in-house will make it easier for faculty and students to undertake more ambitious data-intensive projects, particularly projects that require integrating multiple large data sets,” he said.

McKeown said the new and renovated research spaces will also help expand Columbia’s role in the engineering community. 

“IDSE makes a statement that Columbia is one of the leading institutions for data sciences and engineering in the nation,” McKeown said.

channing.prend@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ChanningPrend

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