Campus News

Meet Stan Ahalt, data science dean

The former RENCI director has a passion for using data science collaboratively to address the most pressing challenges affecting society.

Stan Ahalt poses for a portrait
Stanley (Stan) Ahalt. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

This story continues The Well’s series of Q&As with Carolina’s newest deans. Find earlier stories at our website.

In June 2022, Stan Ahalt was named the inaugural dean of the new School of Data Science and Society. Ahalt previously served as director of the Renaissance Computing Institute for 13 years and taught in the College of Arts and Sciences’ computer science department. Ahalt has put RENCI and Carolina at the forefront of the coordination of large, complex and collaborative federal data science projects, garnering $34.5 million in funding in the last five years. He brings a similar approach to Carolina’s newest school, which will be a hub for data science across campus.

“We’re not necessarily going to build hardware, which is what engineering does. Instead, we’re going to use the power of data to solve real world problems, by building tools,” Ahalt said. “Data science is going to be invaluable in, for example, ensuring we have sufficient freshwater and electricity and in managing the rich agricultural resources of our state and nation to feed the world.”

What’s something you’ve learned about the University now that you’re working more broadly across campus?

I have been heartened by the level of support for our school. It has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m appreciative of the incredible goodwill and support that’s been demonstrated across campus. I’ve also been wowed by the rich talent pools. These pools are deeper and richer and more plentiful than I imagined — and I was already humbled by the wealth of expertise at UNC-Chapel Hill. And this makes me very proud to be part of Carolina.

How is your school fulfilling Carolina’s mission of teaching, research and public service?

In teaching, we’re about to launch our first degree program, the master of applied data science, offered online. I’m very pleased with the team for having made all this progress in a relatively short period of time. Further, we are working collaboratively and aggressively with many academic units on campus to develop bachelor’s degrees in data science and society.

From a research standpoint, we’re continuing the research initiated before the creation of the school that’s very relevant to our scholarship. We’re also starting up our own independent research programs. The school’s Research Advisory Council, chaired by Santiago Olivella, associate professor of political science, has been particularly proactive in creating a new grants program that will seed some of the initial areas of focus for the school.

As far as public service goes, I think that we have only begun to scratch the surface of how we live up to the “and Society” part of our name. One area that I think is particularly ripe for us to help as conveners is in the energy sector. I was thrilled to serve as a moderator at the UNC Cleantech Summit organized by Greg Gangi of the Institute for the Environment. I think that his work has put us in a position to be able to expand into more opportunities in energy and clean technology. And I’m looking forward to broad discussions on campus because it’s so relevant for the challenges that we face with climate resilience. What we’re doing in our school is particularly relevant in looking at how we organize the various subsectors of the energy and clean technology landscapes as well as how we make long-term predictions of power consumption and power production in the face of challenging weather swings.

What’s one example of how you are addressing a current top priority for your school?

The school’s primary objective in the short term is workforce development. We are focused on creating a workforce that’s ready to do data science that fills critical industry needs, has an impact on society, and serves the public good in a very practical and pragmatic fashion. While data science is highly multidisciplinary, it’s also highly translational, and by translational, I mean data science works on real problems.

We have put much effort into establishing the online master’s program, to be followed shortly thereafter by residential bachelor’s degrees. Included in this equation is an aggressive hiring effort that allows us to bring on more teaching and curricular capacity. Additionally, I have talked to people from various industry sectors to assemble a clear framework for what is needed in the marketplace, not just for big companies, but also for smaller companies, the public sector and not-for-profits.

How can other schools and units partner with the School of Data Science and Society?

There’s so much data science research going on across various units! This is an opportunity for us as a university to use the school as a hub to attract national and international talent in the foundational and application areas of data science. We have rich opportunities for joint hires, and I’ve been particularly thrilled to see so many deans and department heads reach out to the school when they see opportunities to recruit individuals that they might not otherwise be able to attract.

We also want to reinforce areas where we are already strong across our campus. One way to do this is to bring in complementary research areas to both augment and build multidisciplinary teams. We want to offer certificates in specific areas of data science and add concentrations in data science to existing degree programs, so that we are delivering on our promise to ensure that every student graduates from Carolina as a data-literate individual.

In addition to hiring new faculty and collaborating with other units, we are hosting events like Carolina Data Science Now, which highlights data science research happening across disciplines. We also recently announced an RFP for seed grants so interdisciplinary teams can receive funding to support a project in data, algorithms and models and/or applications. The deadline to apply is May 15.