A mathematical biologist walks up to a farmer

UNC School of Data Science faculty Alex McAvoy, Santiago Olivella and Harlin Lee

UNC School of Data Science faculty Alex McAvoy, Santiago Olivella and Harlin Lee (photo by Jen Hughey/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Faculty at Carolina’s new School of Data Science and Society share their visions for teaching and research that have a real-world impact.

Interviews and story by Drew Guiteras

In conversations about his work, Alex McAvoy, assistant professor at the UNC School of Data Science and Society (SDSS), sometimes shares a joke that an academic mentor once told him.

A mathematical biologist walks up to a farmer and says, “Hey, if I can guess how many sheep you own, can I take one home with me?” The farmer says, “You’ll never get it right, so go ahead!”

The mathematical biologist runs calculations, makes his guess and it’s exactly right. So he picks up his prize and starts to walk away. The farmer says, “That was amazing! But if I can guess what your job is, will you give me my animal back?”

The mathematical biologist says, “That’s fair. What’s your guess?” The farmer says, “You’re a mathematical biologist, and I can tell because you just picked up my dog.”

McAvoy uses the joke to illustrate a point about using data science tools. “I think there is insight into how modeling can be a double-edged sword,” he said. “It can be extremely useful, but it requires abstracting away the ‘right’ amount of information, which can feel like an art as much as a science.”

McAvoy, who has a secondary appointment in the mathematics department in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, was among the first faculty members recruited to SDSS in 2023, and his farmer joke aligns with the school’s emphasis on a “human-centric” approach to applications of data science that solves real-world problems.

SDSS has assembled a cohort of faculty in fields ranging from the humanities to social sciences to medicine in an effort to facilitate collaboration and help students across Carolina develop data science skills.

“It’s a misconception that data science only happens in certain domains,” said Santiago Olivella, associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences with a full joint appointment in SDSS. “The school has given me an opportunity to see data science applied to areas that I wasn’t fully aware of, like comparative literature. I think many researchers who use data science are asking similar questions and face similar analytical challenges, just in different contexts. So understanding that can really catalyze innovation.”

Harlin Lee, assistant professor at SDSS with affiliations in the computer science and mathematics departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that collaboration helps generate progress beyond a single academic field.

“You don’t want to do just math sitting in your office and have it never see the light of the day,” Lee said. “You want to be working with experts in other scientific or social science domains. You want to advance the theory and methods of data science while also advancing how it’s used outside your immediate field.”

In recent interviews about their first year at SDSS, Lee, McAvoy and Olivella shared thoughts about the school, the opportunity to teach students and how data science impacts people in important or unexpected ways.

What does the “and Society” part of the school’s name mean to you?

SDSS is offering its first undergraduate courses this fall (2024). Can you share a little bit about what you will be teaching?

Why is it important for students to learn about data science?

Can you share a little bit about your research?

What’s one way people encounter or use data science in their everyday lives?

Have you ever ignored the data in a decision you made? What were the results?

Do you have one book or podcast recommendation for people interested in learning more about data science?

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