Azer Bestavros explains his vision to position BU at the forefront of a computing and data science world.
Azer Bestavros, associate provost for computing and data sciences, outlines his vision for BU developing challenging, lively, flexible academic experiences for students, while helping them find their passion in the pursuit of vibrant data science careers.
The incredible advances in computing and communication technologies of the 20th century have led us to a 21st-century world that is defined by data and is shaped by how computers gather, manipulate, interpret, and use that data.
What do I mean? Our credit scores are nothing but numerical expressions that summarize the mountains of data about our financial transactions over time. Our social and professional media feeds have become targeted content by marketers and advertisers based on our explicit likes and dislikes, and even our inferred interests. Our political leanings have our phones buzzing with constant message requests for campaign donations. And then there are the thieves who steal our data and use it to take our money or hijack our identity and wreak havoc in our worlds.
One can look at this brave new world with anxiety and even fear as the gap between the haves and have-nots—programmers and programmed—continues to widen. What’s to become of our society when our decision-making processes are increasingly reliant on the use of obscure machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies? What’s to become of our democracy when reasoned civic discourse becomes a casualty of targeted misinformation and disinformation campaigns? What’s to become of our humanity when data becomes our only window to the world and computer algorithms govern our interactions?
Those are all fair and reasonable concerns worthy of exploration. But there is another, more optimistic view.
One can also look at this new data-driven world as an empowering one, a world where data and computation over data are merely tools that we can (and we should) domesticate for a better society. This can be a world where data and algorithms are inclusive of the viewpoints and values of the communities most impacted by their usage. This can be a world that is made more resilient, efficient, and equitable through the use of evidence-based policymaking.
This more optimistic viewpoint is the world that the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) at Boston University envisions and strives to make a reality. It is a world in which leveraging data and computation is an equal opportunity, a world in which mastering the tools of the trade is not a barrier to entry, but rather the lingua franca for collaboration that breaks down disciplinary boundaries. Our aim is nothing less than to democratize access to computing and data sciences, by preparing a more diverse and passionate cohort of learners for rewarding careers, in any field that they choose, by catalyzing faculty research in disciplines that are yet to be transformed, and by bringing data-driven innovation to bear on societally relevant challenges too often overlooked by industry.
Why BU is positioned to lead
Since the early 1980s, we have built a proud history of investments at BU in research areas that contributed to the emergence of data science, most notably in cognitive and neural systems (the precursor to deep learning) and in scientific high-performance computing (the precursor to cloud computing). A notable milestone came in 2010 with the creation of the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering as an incubator that accelerates data-driven research in various disciplines by leveraging BU’s strengths in existing centers and new initiatives focused on data science, artificial intelligence, software engineering, computational science, cloud computing, digital health, data privacy, cybersecurity, and the nexus of computing, society, and law.
It is against this backdrop that in 2019 BU launched CDS as a new University-wide academic unit, and in tandem started construction on the Center for Computing & Data Sciences—a 19-story, 345,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art -art iconic facility at the heart of our campus. The center is designed as a vertical campus that connects a “CDS public square” on the lower floors with classrooms and labs for our Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science programs on the middle floors, transitioning seamlessly into the flexible and dynamic collaborative research spaces supporting the Hariri Institute and the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences. In sum, the new building will be a physical embodiment of the centrality and collaborative nature of data sciences.
The central location of the building is a manifestation of the role that computing plays in academia as the connecting tissue for interdisciplinary pursuits. Just as the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences is at the crossroads of scholarly endeavors at BU, the center itself is physically on the paths connecting one BU landmark to another!
Even more important than the building itself is BU’s unorthodox approach to establish CDS as a cross-cutting academic unit that augments and complements our existing departments. This structure recognizes the importance (and preserves the diversity) of the established academic and professional cultures of computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and statistics, while allowing CDS to recruit truly interdisciplinary faculty who identify more with how data science scholarship is pursued for societal impact.
This allows CDS to cluster its faculty and programs around thematic areas of impact as opposed to around typical data science subspecialties. These thematic areas connect computing and data science with societally relevant areas of impact that BU is strategically positioned to lead, including equity, sustainability, health and biomedicine, and civic technology. To that end, much of CDS’ work is done through co-lab partnerships leveraging a shared technical and human infrastructure to integrate basic and applied research with curricular and cocurricular activities in support of partner-directed priorities.
The organization of CDS as a University-wide academic unit allows it to develop vibrant academic experiences for BU students by introducing truly interdisciplinary and flexible programs. This way, data science is not seen or treated as a specialization or track within a discipline, but rather as the transdisciplinary field it is, setting students up for success and longevity in data science careers, by complementing foundational knowledge and core competencies with experiential learning and ethical and responsible in-the-field training.
CDS clusters its faculty and programs around thematic areas of impact as opposed to around typical data science subspecialties. These thematic areas connect computing and data science with societally relevant areas of impact that BU is strategically positioned to lead, including equity, sustainability, health and biomedicine, and civic technology.
This clean-slate approach allows for programs with streamlined prerequisite structures, which are more inclusive of students interested in combining data science with other majors or minors.
While part of CDS, BU Spark! has its own, very visible space on the second floor. BU Spark! is a technology incubator for real-world projects sourced from industry and the public sector, which are integrated in curricular and cocurricular experiential learning offerings that empower students to pursue their passions and reach their full potential by providing resources, knowledge, and expert networks. This empowers a more diverse body of students to follow their passions, build community, and develop the so-called “soft skills” necessary for success in a world defined by data-driven discovery and innovation.
Key next steps
A long time in the making, it is hard to believe that CDS is well into its third year as the newest academic unit at Boston University. Since its inception in a world dominated by the challenges of COVID-19, we have been laying foundations—literally, of the new building, and figuratively, of our academic programs—to enable the center to emerge from the pandemic ready to welcome students, faculty, and staff into a community poised to further innovation and propel data sciences into the future. Indeed, we did not miss a beat!
In the span of just a few years, what we have accomplished is astonishing:
We launched three signature degree programs: the Bachelor of Science in Data Science, the minor in Data Science, and our PhD in Computing & Data Sciences. We also completed national searches for tenure-stream, clinical, and of-the-practice professorships, bringing to 11 the number of professorial appointments in CDS. We fused BU Spark! into CDS by integrating its innovation and experiential learning programs into our curricular and cocurricular offerings, and by assimilating its culture of inclusion and empowerment of students. We developed a rich curriculum with dozens of courses that thoughtfully weave in much of the BU Hub general education program while giving students the flexibility to explore their interests and passions in the best traditions of a liberal arts education. We grew our program management and advising capacities by recruiting administrative team members who are passionate about our vision and culture. And we established partnerships with internal and external organizations, and with alumni and friends of the University who believe in the transformative power of computational and data-driven inquiry.
And we’re only getting started.
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