College of Engineering News

Bioinformatics pioneer Cathy Wu to lead University-wide endeavor

The University of Delaware is establishing a new institute to accelerate research in data science, and a pioneer in the interdisciplinary field, tapped from UD’s faculty ranks, will lead it.

Cathy Wu, the Unidel Edward G. Jefferson Chair in Engineering and Computer Science and an expert in bioinformatics, will serve as the founding director of the University of Delaware Data Science Institute. The appointment is effective April 1.

Wu is an internationally acclaimed pioneer in bioinformatics, which uses computing to extract meaning from large amounts of biological data. Through her discoveries and data mining techniques, Wu is helping the scientific community home in on gene therapies to treat human disease, among other advances. She has been recognized as one of the world’s most influential scholars, with her work cited more than 28,000 times by other researchers.

“Cathy Wu is a distinguished leader and scholar and will be an inspiring director of the University of Delaware’s Data Science Institute,” UD President Dennis Assanis said. “Under Dr. Wu’s leadership, UD’s Data Science Institute will become an exciting hub for interdisciplinary research, collaboration and excellence. The institute will have a transformative role on the University and society, preparing our students to work effectively with big data and harness it to seize new opportunities and address the challenges facing our society in the fields of business, communications, personalized medicine and so many others.”

Charlie Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation, said, “I can think of no one better suited to lead the University of Delaware Data Science Institute than Cathy Wu. A pioneer in data science applications that serve the public good, she also is an extraordinary force for collaboration and an exemplary leader. She leads global genomic databases and serves on advisory councils at the National Institutes of Health. She is the program coordinator for Delaware INBRE—a statewide catalyst for biomedical research, and directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, including one of the few doctoral programs in the field.”

“It’s a very exciting time for UD to be actively engaged in this data science initiative to foster data-driven discoveries and innovations, and I am honored to spearhead this collaborative effort,” Wu said. “UD already has a solid foundation and a lot of momentum, with more than 100 faculty working in data science across campus in all seven colleges, and a new master’s degree program in data science starting this fall. The institute will be a nucleation, a focal point for activities that are already occurring, and a catalyst and coordinating force for pursuing new opportunities of benefit to our students and the world.”

UD’s new Data Science Institute

Data science leverages multiple disciplines that analyze numbers, such as statistics, computer science, math, information sciences and other related fields, to search out patterns and trends and mine the gold nuggets of knowledge from complex data sets. Often these data sets are massive—millions of times larger than the gigabytes stored on your phone or computer.

The data science symposium held at UD in May 2017 was a major catalyst for UD’s new institute. It brought together more than 100 faculty, students and staff working in a broad range of areas, from probing political texts to forecast and prevent human atrocities, to assessing the success of large-scale secondary education programs, and using weather radar data to track bird migrations and the potential impacts of light pollution, to name only a few.

Delaware is perhaps the most instrumented state in the U.S. for collecting weather and climate data, driven in large part by UD research. UD also has a long history in particle astrophysics and, with the first doctoral program in the field, is a leader in financial services analytics for boosting security and customer service in the banking and credit card industries. Delaware’s size and connectivity also make it an ideal laboratory for developing a national model for big data in precision medicine, Wu said. And that’s just scratching the surface on UD’s data strengths.

The symposium coalesced a working group that drafted a white paper report highlighting national trends, activities underway on campus, and emerging opportunities, including the need for an institute to focus and lead the charge into the future.

Wu said one of her first tasks is to formalize the institute’s governance structure, including an executive council and an external advisory board. A faculty council of leading data researchers and representatives from major programs across campus will be announced later this spring.

“The faculty council will drive the institute’s initiatives and will help identify areas of opportunity and synergy,” Wu said. “Now, UD will be able to more readily identify multidisciplinary teams of investigators with complementary expertise to respond to special funding opportunities from the federal agencies, industry and other sources.”

Educating data-savvy students

UD also has launched a cluster search to hire eight to 10 new faculty in data science over the next two years. These faculty will support research and teaching in both the foundations of data science—development of the underlying theory, tools and techniques—and its applications in a broad range of areas, including health and life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, environmental sciences, education, financial services analytics, behavioral and social sciences, and public policy.

“More and more students will find interdisciplinary research opportunities as we grow,” Wu said. “Increasingly, students will have not just a primary mentor, but also be able to identify a co-mentor from a complementary field. This enriched mentoring experience will be very powerful.”

The institute also will help fuel the new master’s program in data science launching at UD this fall. It encompasses three academic programs—mathematics, computer science and statistics—based in three colleges (Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Agriculture and Natural Resources), illustrating how the University is collaborating across campus to develop both the research and educational agenda in data science.

Wu sees great advantages in having more students trained and research investigators who can speak the language at the intersection of disciplines. They will enable the new institute to pair people who are generating data with people who can design the methodologies to make sense of it.

“Growing up with social media, the younger generation has been embedded in the data science revolution on a daily basis,” Wu said. “Our students will inspire future innovations in data science because they are living it and breathing it.”

A ceremony celebrating the institute’s formal kick-off is being planned for September.

Article by Tracey Bryant