Rice launches first-of-its-kind data science center

D2K Lab students will work directly with clients to make an impact through data

D2K Lab Director Genevera Allen teaching at a consulting clinic in September. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

HOUSTON — (Oct. 19, 2018) — Rice University is launching a unique data science laboratory where students will work directly with companies, academic labs, government agencies and nonprofits to translate their data into actionable ideas. The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge (D2K Lab) is supported by a generous $4 million gift from Rice alumnus Kevin Harvey and his wife Catherine Harvey.

“Data is everywhere, in seemingly endless varieties and massive quantities, but there’s a critical shortage of people who are trained to turn data into actionable, useful knowledge,” said Associate Professor Genevera Allen, founding director of the D2K Lab. “The key is to connect Rice students with people who have data challenges. Our students will not only gain invaluable experience and unique learning opportunities, they’ll also make an impact by solving real-world data science problems.”

The D2K Lab will provide courses, co-curricular programs and events focused on linking students with people who need help interpreting their data. In each of the lab’s marquee courses, for example, Rice students work in teams to solve real problems brought in by clients. In one course, students participate in the D2K Consulting Clinic, a weekly walk-in clinic on Monday afternoons that is designed for smaller-scale problems that can be tackled in a few hours or a couple of days. Another course, the D2K Learning Lab, features in-depth, semesterlong or yearlong data science projects defined by the sponsor. Allen is teaching each course this fall and has about 50 students, including the first seven D2K Learning Lab teams. Allen said the D2K Lab plans to expand within five years to serve up to 300 students and 100 clients per year.

“Expanding the program is something that couldn’t have happened without this gift,” said Allen, a statistician, mathematician and neuroscientist who holds joint appointments at Rice and Baylor College of Medicine.

“We are extremely grateful to Kevin and Catherine for their visionary support of the D2K Lab and providing the resources to make this a truly transformational teaching program for our undergraduate and graduate students,” Rice President David Leebron said. “The D2K lab is a critical piece of our intensified investment in data science education, research and application at Rice. In connecting our students with non-profit organizations, government agencies and companies, we will bring the very best in experiential learning to our students while they simultaneously solve real problems and make an important contribution to Houston and beyond.”

The D2K Consulting Clinic, which began in the spring, has a mixed enrollment this fall of 12 graduate students and undergraduate upperclassmen. Allen said this mixture of graduate and undergraduate talent and training is one thing that makes D2K unique. Allen matches clinic clients, which can be either walk-in or by appointment, with small teams of three to four students who are chosen specifically for each client based on their shared skills and areas of expertise. Clients meet with the team and discuss their problem, and the team delivers a report with a suggested course of action within a few days.

“The clinic experience is invaluable for students because they see a wide range of problems and clients,” Allen said. “No two data science problems are quite the same, and clients can also be very different in terms of their expertise and expectations. The D2K Consulting Clinic teaches students how to analyze and solve problems as well as how to communicate those solutions to non-experts.”

In the D2K Learning Lab, which is being taught for the first time this semester, students focus on solving data science problems over the course of a semester. Potential clients meet with Allen and D2K staff the preceding semester and pitch ideas for projects, which are chosen based on learning opportunities, skill sets and expertise of student teams and other factors. Allen said Rice has developed a sponsored research agreement so companies can sponsor D2K Learning Lab student teams and own any resulting intellectual property.

The D2K Lab also plans a range of co-curricular programs, including a lift-off program for first-semester freshmen, data visualization and “data-thon” competitions, an industry lunch series and a distinguished lecture series.

“Courses and client-facing work are the backbone of the program, but co-curricular activities are key for keeping students engaged and enriching their experience at Rice,” Allen said. “These are the places they’ll have the most fun and the most interaction with leading data scientists from industry and academia.”

The D2K Lab addresses several of Rice’s strategic goals by offering a transformative undergraduate experience, research and mentoring opportunities to graduate students, deeper engagement with Houston officials, companies and organizations and by contributing to research for the betterment of our world. For more information about the D2K Lab, visit d2k.rice.edu. For more information about Rice’s strategic plan, Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade, visit v2c2.rice.edu.

Allen is an associate professor of statistics, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering at Rice and associate professor of pediatric neurology at Baylor College of Medicine’s Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Author: Jade Boyd