Campus News

School of Data Science and Society gains momentum

Dean Stan Ahalt and an implementation team are busy building opportunities to learn about and leverage data.

Stan Ahalt and Kevin Guskiewicz seated on stage.
“I love the ‘and society’ at the end of the school’s name,” said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (right), speaking with School of Data Science and Society Dean Stan Ahalt during a public conversation about expectations and future plans for the school at the UNC CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio on Sept. 12. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

After years of planning by hundreds of faculty and administrators across campus, Carolina’s School of Data Science and Society (SDSS) is well underway.

The school’s inaugural dean, Stan Ahalt, former director of the Renaissance Computing Institute, has been working tirelessly with an implementation leadership team. They are planning an official launch event later this semester.

“The School of Data Science and Society will leverage the talents of world-class faculty across disciplines and focus on the foundations and applications of data science to improve lives in North Carolina and across the globe,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “The new school will also prepare students for a changing workplace and help attract and keep competitive employers in our state.”

On Sept. 12, Guskiewicz joined Ahalt for a well-attended public conversation about expectations and future plans for the school at the UNC CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. Also on hand to field questions from Ahalt were Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen and Assistant Professor of Art History Kathryn Desplanque. The event was part of the popular Carolina Data Science Now series, co-sponsored by the new school and RENCI to illuminate data science research across disciplines.

“I love the ‘and society’ at the end of the school’s name,” Guskiewicz said when Ahalt asked about his expectations for the school. “We’re going to bring the social sciences, the human dimension, into the school, in the way we not only capture data, analyze data, interpret data, but (consider) how society uses that data to make informed decisions.”

During the event, Ahalt and guests discussed how the school will address the increasing need for data literacy across different industries and research fields, including hiring faculty with diverse research backgrounds, forming relationships with relevant industry partners, providing training on effective data science methods and building a curriculum that addresses critical topics such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and data privacy and ethics.

And they spoke a lot about the school’s role in aiding the sharing of data between experts at the University’s numerous research centers and institutes.

“Data is really the language of collaboration,” Gordon-Larsen said.

Bringing the new school into being

Gordon-Larsen’s insight into the collaborative nature of data science resonated with those in attendance on Sept. 12 for good reason. Throughout the decade or so of planning that led to this moment, collaboration has been a core principle. The school’s interdisciplinary approach will be reflected in a pan-University advisory council to be named later this fall.

Other next steps include:

  • Building out academic affairs, starting with a curriculum.
  • Establishing faculty affairs such as guidelines for hiring new faculty, for establishing joint appointments and for promotion and tenure.
  • Focusing on incorporating approaches developed by faculty and applications of data science to address societal problems and policy issues on the state and national level.
  • Enrolling students and hiring staff and faculty.

Over the next few months, Ahalt and the implementation team — RENCI’s Jay Aikat, Carolina geneticist Terry Magnuson and administrator Anna Rose Medley — will define research clusters based on the subject areas on which the school will concentrate. At first that might mean three to five research clusters, all interdisciplinary, involving people from different schools focused on a major challenge that needs to be solved.

The implementation team views establishing the curriculum as among the group’s most important goals. They’re well underway in building the online master’s degree program. A minor in the College introduced in the fall of 2021 has proven extremely popular, attracting more than 500 students in its first year. And the team is working on both the Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in collaboration with the College and other schools.

The implementation team members and Ahalt welcome engagement with faculty, staff and students who have questions about the school’s next steps and how they can get involved. Email sdss@unc.edu with questions, comments or suggestions.

The implementation team projects the first three years as a startup phase — hiring faculty and staff and launching degree programs to move the school into a steady state of operations in five to seven years. A brick-and-mortar location will come later.

The school’s leadership team is in the process of building out infrastructure to support curriculum, academic and faculty affairs, student enrollment and student mentoring. Additionally, discussions are underway with units across campus to develop a strategic roadmap to promote data literacy and data-related research and training across the entire University.

“The collective expertise we need is already present on this campus. The SDSS will grow this pool of expertise and provide a focal point for collaborations,” Ahalt said. “Carolina is a unique institution that practices the credo of collaboration across disciplines. We will focus on the science, methods and technologies that anchor data science as well as applications that have an impact on society.”

Based on the interest shown so far by faculty, staff and students, the School of Data Science and Society will be a welcome addition to the University.

What Data Science Will Mean to You — One Person’s View

What: SDSS Distinguished Speaker Series with Dr. Phil Bourne, founding dean of the School of Data Science at the University of Virginia (seminar open to the public, reception to follow)
When: Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 12:20 p.m.
Where: Kerr Hall, room 2001

Data science is transformative — an easy assertion to make when one has worked in academia for several years. Nevertheless, the digital transformation of society cannot be denied. Academic data science initiatives around the country are responding and contributing to the transformation with new trainees, innovative research and local community action. As UNC launches its new School of Data Science and Society, we will spend time reflecting on the age-old question: What’s in it for me?