May 2014 Newsletter: Big Data: Jefferson Trust Fellowship Competition

Fishbowl 2Through a grant from the Jefferson Trust and in collaboration with the newly founded Data Science Institute, the Office of the Vice President for Research has been working to create opportunities for graduate students in diverse disciplines to work together on collaborative research projects in the area of Big Data. Now in year two, the program continues to develop and has just announced its 2014-15 Fellows.

In the spring of 2013, students across the University were invited to find collaborators in other disciplines and to submit a joint research proposal in the broad area of Big Data. Altogether, five joint proposals were submitted and reviewed by an interdisciplinary committee of faculty. Three were chosen for funding, ultimately resulting in eight graduate student fellowships, with one undergraduate assistant, for the 2013-2014 academic year. With feedback from faculty and students throughout the first competition, a new process was established for the 2014-15 fellowship awards. This feedback highlighted the need to create more scaffolding surrounding the program, which led to the development of two new steps: 1) departmental roundtables and 2) the Big Data Mixer.

In October 2013, schools and departments around Grounds were invited to hold departmental roundtable discussions specifically for graduate students to brainstorm ideas on how they could collaborate with other disciplines on research problems surrounding Big Data. Students were invited to plan and organize their own departments’ gatherings and were reimbursed for food served at the meetings. Departments that reported participation included Economics, Biology, Philosophy, Biomedical Engineering, Politics, Systems Engineering, Statistics, Music, and Astronomy. At least 70 students participated in these roundtables.

The departmental roundtables culminated with a November event to facilitate connections between potential collaborators across Grounds, the “Big Data Mixer.” The mixer began with a “fishbowl” networking activity in which students sat in a large circle surrounding a smaller group of four students. Conversations took place within the smaller group, while the large group observed, and all students had a chance to participate in the smaller group discussion. This activity was followed by a networking activity during which students were randomly paired to talk further about their projects and interests. Finally, students had the opportunity to network with other students of their choice, in order to follow up on particularly interesting projects or collaborations they learned about during the course of the evening. The success of this event far exceeded expectations—out of the five fellowship-winning teams for this year, at least three are composed of members who met for the first time that evening!

In January, potential collaborators were invited to submit pre-proposals, which allowed them the opportunity for feedback in advance of the final proposal submission deadline. Submitting these pre-proposals was not required for the final application process; however 12 groups did submit and receive feedback. In the final application process, thirteen proposals (including 6 not seen in the pre-proposal submissions) were submitted for the February 2014 deadline. The projects chosen for funding during the 2014-15 academic year are:

Gut Predictions: Building a Predictive Model of the Gut Biome: Matthew Biggs, Biomedical Engineering, and Steven Steinway, School of Medicine

Data-Driven, Complex Systems Model of Public Opinion: Osama Eshera and Gerard Learmonth, Systems and Information Engineering, and Chelsea Goforth and Nicholas Winter, Politics

Big Data Meets Mind-Body Complementary Therapy: Data-Driven Musculoskeletal Models that Guide the Use of Yoga for Treatment of Chronic Diseases: Tamara G. Fischer-White, Nursing, and Kelley Virgilio, Biomedical Engineering

Uncovering Mechanisms of Social Movements within the Arab Spring: A Data-Mining Approach, Robert Kubinec, Politics, and Congyu Wu, Systems Engineering

Maintained Individual Data Distributed Likelihood Estimation (MIDDLE): Joshua N. Pritikin, Psychology, and Yang Wang, Systems and Information Engineering

These fellowships, and the process leading up to the fellowship proposals, make a crucial contribution to the goals of the Office of the Vice President for Research and to the quality of graduate student research at the University of Virginia. Students who otherwise would have never known about each other’s research have begun collaborations that will enhance the individual work of each student and, most importantly, will bring to contemporary problems – problems which do not fit neatly into disciplinary categories – perspectives and solutions that would not be possible without such work. This has the potential to improve research across the University, and it allows our brightest young researchers to apply their skills and knowledge to the most pressing contemporary questions, both intellectual and practical, that face human communities near and far.