Tufts Awarded NSF Grant to Expand Big Data Innovation and Discovery

The funding kick-starts T-TRIPODS Institute, a university initiative focused on broadening data science methods and how they apply to diverse fields
A tablet with pie charts and bar charts and numbers, with a set of hands holding it. NSF funding kickstarts T-TRIPODS Institute, a university initiative focused on broadening data science methods and how they apply to diverse fields.
“I was ecstatic to learn we’d won the grant; we care so much about this field and its future,” Lenore Cowen said. Photo: Shutterstock
December 13, 2019

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Tufts University has been awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a TRIPODS Institute, which will broaden the university’s efforts in the development of new methods for securely extracting information from complex data sets and applying these techniques across diverse disciplines. 

Tufts joins more than twenty other TRIPODS Institute universities (TRIPODS stands for Transdisciplinary Research In Principles of Data Science), which are a central piece of NSF’s Harnessing the Data Revolution initiative aimed at unlocking the potential of big data to drive innovation and discovery.

The T-TRIPODS Institute, as it will be called at Tufts, will bring together a cross-disciplinary team of faculty in mathematics, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering who will develop and share their expertise in data science with faculty and students in fields outside their own, including the classics, urban planning, and veterinary medicine.

The T-TRIPODS Institute also will host conferences and workshops and offer graduate student training, a summer undergraduate training program, and a “Data Science for All” program in partnership with the Tufts Center for STEM Diversity. (T-TRIPODS is hosting a launch event on January 31 at 51 Winthrop Street on the Medford/Somerville campus; pre-register online.)

“We are deeply gratified that NSF recognizes that our collaborative research community and our strengths in data science and its applications across a broad range of disciplines are a natural fit for a TRIPODS Institute,” said Provost and Senior Vice President Nadine Aubry. “We have tremendous potential to work together, and it will be exciting to see Tufts transform this opportunity into new bridges that expand our scholarship, teaching, and translational research in this fast-evolving field.”

A diagram showing the intersection of many areas involved in T-TRIPODS. T-TRIPODS is led by principal investigator Lenore Cowen, a professor of computer science in the School of Engineering. She said being selected as a TRIPODS institute reflects confidence in Tufts’ distinctive strengths in data science and its agility in supporting interdisciplinary collaboration. It comes at a pivotal time, she added, as Tufts seeks to position itself as a leader in the rapidly evolving fields of data science and analysis.

“I was ecstatic to learn we’d won the grant; we care so much about this field and its future,” she said, noting that Tufts in the past two years launched the Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC) and rolled out several new undergraduate and master’s degree programs in data science and in data analytics.

“There’s no question that there is a lot of activity, energy, and interest in data here at Tufts,” she said. “Joining the TRIPODS initiative, we will have the opportunity to reach beyond Tufts to learn from and learn with all the other NSF Tripods Institutes, both regionally, in New England, and nationally.”  

Kathleen Fisher, professor and chair of computer science and a co-principal investigator on the grant, is also excited by the institute’s potential. “Being a TRIPODS Institute gives us the critical resources to knit together our efforts in building a secure foundation of data science that spans computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and mathematics,” she said. “It’s also a great catalyst for DISC as it gets started on becoming a critical, university-wide resource.”

Abani Patra, director of DISC, called the award a “tremendous investment that affirms that Tufts is going to be in data for the long run.” Now located in Robinson Hall in the School of Engineering, DISC will have a new home in Joyce Cummings Center, the multi-disciplinary academic building, upon its completion in 2021.  

“TRIPODS Institutes focus precisely on what is complementary to DISC—both core methodology and the theory,” Patra said. “At the same time, the good work that comes about because of T-TRIPODS will be supported by DISC—we will gain strength as a community resource on which people can depend.”  

The three-year NSF funding supports three overlapping research themes: graphs and tensor representations of data begin in the first year and are joined in the second year by collecting, modeling, and learning from data with a spatial or temporal dimension; and in the third year by analysis of data with assurances of quality, transparency, fairness, privacy, and trust.

The three themes will be applied to four domains: biological and biomedical data; education and cognitive science; smart cities development and design; and computational arts and humanities.

Eric Miller, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering and co-PI of the grant, will direct the second research theme, where he will be developing new physics-based techniques to model temporal data. He plans to apply his methods to problems in education and cognitive science, building on School of Engineering collaborations with the Department of Psychology, the Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction, and the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“The problems we’re working on aim to help people who do learning science,” Miller said. “We’re looking for a better idea about how students are grasping material in real time, in lectures, or small group assignments. To do that, we need machine learning and data science research to come together—that will be our main thrust.”

Currently, he said, the research is “very observational and very labor intensive,” and these methods are proving cumbersome as data sets become larger and more complex. “We foresee a larger role for machine learning tools that can automate the process and help us handle much larger data sets that will be coming out of our research.”

Shan Jiang, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, will be involved with the “Smart Cities” initiative. The NSF grant ties into the surge of “technological innovations that have transformed the way people live, work, play, and travel, and how cities function and serve,” she said.

“With the exploding growth of sensors and smart devices connected in the Internet of Things and the booming digital economy, cities and residents are experiencing a digital revolution,” she said.

“We hope through the TRIPODS initiative and DISC, that computer scientists, urbanists, economists, engineers, and mathematicians will collaborate together to harness urban big data and develop new methods and approaches to address the grand challenges for cities to grow smart, sustainably, equitably, and healthily.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.