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Four STPF Alumni Lead the Big Data Charge

By Joy Metcalf

Late last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) granted $5 million dollars to establish four Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs covering all 50 states with more than 250 universities, corporations, foundations, and cities committing support. The hubs’ role: To develop big data partnerships and strategies to address challenges the United States faces on a regional and national level.

Meredith lee, Lea shanley, Rene Baston, Renata rawlings-gross by RC Barcus
Four of five hub leads enjoy the DC outdoors (from left to right: Lee, Shanley, Baston, Rawlings-Goss). | RC Barcus

“Data is an economic driver. It helps businesses understand their customers, make better products, improve safety, and understand trends. In science, it helps us understand and develop strategies for dealing with the most important issues of our time,” said Lea Shanley, co-executive director of the South Big Data Hub, and 2008-09 Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, sponsored by ASA/CSSA/SSSA.

Utilizing that data, Shanley and the other Big Data Hub executive directors (EDs)— 2014-16 Executive Branch Fellow at NSF Renata Rawlings-Goss, co-director of the South hub; 2011-13 Executive Branch Fellow at NSF Melissa Cragin, Midwest hub; 2013-15 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Meredith Lee, West hub; and Rene Baston, Northeast hub—aim to improve the impact that data science has on both science and society.

“We have the opportunity to change paradigms and the way people work and conduct research,” said Shanley.

Melissa Cragin by L Brian Stauffer stpf

Melissa Cragin | L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Common Ground

As STPF alumni, Shanley, Lee, Rawlings-Goss and Cragin embarked this year in their new positions with a shared experience and established relationships.

“The shared fellowship experience has definitely brought the executive directors closer together in that we share a common background and foundation that STPF expertly provides,” stated Rawlings-Gross.

“As fellows, we learned how to communicate complex, scientific concepts to decision-makers and developed deep networks within the federal government, Congress, and the White House, as well as within the academic and private sector research and development communities,” said Shanley. Now as Hub directors, she said they are using those “skills and networks to help Hub members translate their research so as to have a tangible impact on public policy.”

While not a former fellow, “Rene Baston brings great private sector experience to the team, which will be critically important to the hubs’ success,” Shanley noted.

Big Data Impacts

Each hub has a shared mission. “We want to foster innovations and innovators, strengthening the data science ecosystem to make progress in national priority areas,” said Lee.

The hubs hold yearly all-hands meetings as well as regular meetings and workshops. Rawlings-Goss noted that the EDs also hold weekly calls to ensure activities are in sync for maximum benefit to the nation as a whole.

Although the hubs are relatively new, they are making great strides. In its first month, the West hub helped more than 40 teams establish joint proposals for big data “spoke projects,” projects focused on topics of regional concern. Lee noted that the collaborations formed during the spoke proposal development are leading to working and interest groups.

Cragin is developing opportunities to maximize the Midwest hub’s reach, including creating workshops, connecting data users with data producers, and joining together communities that have not been previously connected.

The South Hub recently launched the Program to Empower Partnerships with Industry. This program will provide summer exchange visits for postdocs and early career faculty with data-related industry partners.

And the Northeast Hub has held workshops over the past several months to help foster collaborations and connections among scientists from government, industry, and academia.

“We have a chance to really move the needle on how people do science,” said Rawlings-Goss.