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NU launches data science/AI initiative

Steering Committee begins work to lead a University-wide effort to integrate and elevate Northwestern’s DS/AI strength

From the social sciences to the STEM fields, disciplines across Northwestern are leveraging data science and artificial intelligence (DS/AI) to enhance research and boost discovery. With so much promising activity in this area across campuses, Northwestern leadership recently announced an ambitious, multifaceted initiative to further elevate its DS/AI capabilities by coordinating talent and resources across the University.

Planning for this broad-reaching initiative began last fall, and it is supported by President Michael Schill, Provost Kathleen Hagerty, and Vice President for Research Eric Perreault. The effort underscores Northwestern’s commitment to harnessing the power of data analytics and artificial intelligence, which is an institutional priority for Northwestern.

The new DS/AI Steering Committee is a key force in this transformative journey. The committee, composed of a multidisciplinary team of faculty from across the University, participated in a kickoff luncheon on Feb. 27, during which senior university leaders gave them their formal charge.

The 24-person committee is led by chair Vicky Kalogera (physics and astronomy) and co-vice chairs Abel Kho (internal medicine) and V.S. Subrahmanian (computer science). A list of all committee members appears online.

This team’s charge is to create a vision that advances Northwestern’s DS/AI ecosystem over one to 10 years, identifying cross-cutting research and educational initiatives that amplify existing strengths. The aim is to make both more immediate and longer-term progress that leverages the university's exceptional interdisciplinary capacity.

At the kickoff event, Schill expressed his support for this strategic project and emphasized its critical importance to the University's future.

"In a world increasingly shaped by data science and artificial intelligence, our commitment to this initiative reflects Northwestern's dedication to being a research innovation leader,” he said. “By embracing our unique cross-disciplinary strengths, we can make groundbreaking contributions to shape the future of DS/AI and address society's most pressing challenges."

Hagerty praised the University’s “exceptional faculty working across many schools and departments” who have and will continue to contribute to the institution’s DS/AI success.

She also noted the steps Northwestern IT has taken to bolster the infrastructure necessary for success, including providing expertise in DS/AI methods and applications across various disciplines; supporting researchers to meet data management and security requirements; and providing hands-on support for computing.

These investments are already benefiting faculty and students as well as advancing scientific discovery. For example, a team of Northwestern data scientists and graduate students in Northwestern IT recently with investigators at Feinberg on a new way to use electronic health records to better understand intergenerational obesity. The team created a custom algorithm that can use millions of patients’ emergency contact data to build family trees within hours, while previous versions took up to five days to run.

There are many more examples of collaborations among Northwestern researchers and data scientists at Northwestern IT.

Projects are happening across campus. Two Northwestern professors, including V.S. Subrahmanian, recently co-authored a report examining the potential harms deepfakes created by AI pose to democracy. And a range of DS/AI-related centers and institutes across Northwestern each offer unique expertise, including the Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine (I.AIM); the Center for Deep Learning (CDL), the Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence (CASMI), and the Institute for Data, Econometrics, Algorithms, and Learning (IDEAL).

“Everyone is passionate about this cross-cutting effort and how it can increase our research excellence and institutional eminence,” Perreault said, noting a series of recent preliminary visioning sessions organized by the Office for Research in collaboration with the schools, NUIT, Libraries, and senior leadership. This work helped inform short- and long-term priorities for the DS/AI priority. "The expertise that our Steering Committee now brings to this endeavor is impressive and inspiring and will prove foundational to our success."

The committee has been active since the kickoff lunch, meeting bi-weekly and planning daylong intensive retreats to advance their work. In the coming months, the team will share regular progress reports with senior leadership and provide updates to the Northwestern community at large.

“At Northwestern, we stand on the cusp of a transformative era where the convergence of data science and artificial intelligence signifies not just technological advancement, but a fundamental leap in our pursuit of knowledge and innovation,” Hagerty said. “We intend to unlock discovery, learning and societal impact by harnessing these powerful tools.”