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Debzani Deb: Transforming the Triad with data science

Debzani Deb: Transforming the Triad with data science

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The award-winning movie “Moneyball” memorably highlighted the power of data science in transforming professional sports. This rapidly growing field also has the potential to revolutionize daily life in, and far beyond, the Triad.

What if, for example, the timetable for bringing new therapeutic drugs to market — a process that usually takes 15 years and a billion dollars — could be greatly accelerated?

A team led by Winston-Salem State University professor Jill Keith is in the early stages of exploring how to make that happen. Keith’s research, blending predictive analytics with biochemistry, is mining publicly available gene data with an ambitious goal: repurposing existing Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments to cure drug addiction. And that’s just one of several groundbreaking efforts underway at Winston-Salem State’s new Center for Applied Data Science (CADS).

Funded last fall by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the University of North Carolina Research Opportunities Initiative, the center is committed to changing lives and communities for the better, while also fostering greater diversity and inclusion in the data science field.

It’s my privilege to be the principal investigator for this initiative — and I’m truly excited by its potential.

In addition to Keith’s research, center-supported projects are exploring improvements in patient-centered health care, increasing student success through enhanced data collection, examining the influence of music on well-being and creating a spatial justice index that benchmarks access to basic services, economic opportunity and healthy environments throughout North Carolina.

While this work is occurring in academic settings, the practical outcomes will have a lasting and far-reaching impact on the local community in at least two major ways — starting with our student population at Winston-Salem State.

Already, the center has established several research assistantships for graduate students, and we will involve undergraduates in our work as well. More broadly, we will infuse data science throughout the university’s curriculum, including support of a minor in data science, an existing graduate certificate in data analytics and a master’s in data science degree program. Additionally, an array of seminars, workshops and training sessions will educate students on opportunities in the field and help develop their skills.

We expect these offerings will create an advantage in recruiting students to Winston-Salem State. Just as importantly, we will contribute to diversifying the data science field in which minorities are significantly underrepresented, both as a whole and in leadership roles. In fact, we plan to begin raising awareness of data science careers long before students even enroll at the university. The center will contribute to new K-12 outreach activities, including camps at local middle and high schools, to engage students and teachers in the possibilities of data science, and how the field can be integrated into K-12 learning.

A second critical contribution the local community can expect from the center: close partnership. We are eager to team with businesses that might benefit from data science as they pursue investment and commercialization of their products. We also invite academia, industry, nonprofit and government agency participation in our annual symposium and monthly seminars. Community involvement will be essential for driving interdisciplinary research, creating student internships and placing talented graduates in full-time, well-paying jobs in the Triad.

The Center for Applied Data Science gives us all a chance to do something very special together: prepare our young people for a bright future, improve lives through work that also bolsters the economy and advances the cause of racial justice and equity throughout the Triad and North Carolina.

Debzani Deb is associate professor of Computer Science and founding director of the Center for Applied Data Science at Winston-Salem State University. She can be reached at debd@wssu.edu.

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