McGill welcomes Eric Kolaczyk as Director of the Computational and Data Systems Initiative

Eric Kolaczyk will lead the Computational and Data Systems Initiative, a major step forward in the University’s strategic effort to put the power of data-intensive analytical methods at the fingertips of McGill researchers

The Faculty of Science has appointed Mathematics and Statistics Professor Eric Kolaczyk to lead the Computational and Data Systems Initiative (CDSI), a major step forward in the University’s strategic effort to put the power of data-intensive analytical methods at the fingertips of researchers across the McGill community.

Eric Kolaczyk Jeremy Audet

Kolaczyk joins McGill from Boston University, where he led the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing, a centre noted for its success in bringing together faculty with expertise in mathematics, computing and data sciences. Among his achievements, Kolaczyk fostered the development of year-long research convergence exercises on topics like AI and health, machine learning for chemistry and materials science, continuous monitoring systems for electronic-mobile health, and simulation of human systems.

“Large-scale data and computational methods are key elements of research in almost all parts of the Faculty of Science, and the establishment of the CDSI represents an important step towards facilitating truly interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers in this important area,” said Bruce Lennox, Dean of Science.

“We are delighted that Eric has agreed to join McGill to lead this effort. As well as being a highly respected researcher in statistics, he brings a huge amount of expertise in the coordination of initiatives in data science and computation”

Kolaczyk’s appointment opens the way for the formal launch of the CDSI, with an inauguration event to take place on September 20. Over the coming year, the CDSI will expand its successful workshop program, open a Consulting Core Facility (CCF) to provide researchers with tailored advice on applied statistics, computing methodologies and data analytics, and run several research convergence exercises inviting stakeholders on campus to identify and pursue opportunities of unique strength and potential impact.

The McGill Reporter spoke with Eric Kolaczyk about his new role:

What drew you to McGill to take up the role as the head of the CDSI?

My coming to McGill is the result of an almost-frighteningly perfect convergence (from my perspective!) of time and place. My partner being French-Canadian, with family in the area, I’ve long watched the academic and research landscape around Montreal with a deep respect and admiration.

The CDSI has an initial emphasis on three inter-related pillars – convergent research, consulting, and training. I believe I bring useful experiences in designing programs and supporting infrastructure in all three areas. But building out the right version of these things for the McGill community – with the McGill community – is really the biggest draw. That and the fact that I love starting new things with excellent people!

How would you describe the importance of data science for researchers? And for business and industry?

I think it’s difficult to think of a group or endeavour that data science does not today at least touch, if not fundamentally impact, whether in academia, business, industry, or government. Data-driven, computing-enabled systems are everywhere around us, and data science is about the collection, wrangling, analysis, visualization, interpretation, and communication of the data as relevant to goals ranging from the mundane to the profound.

What do you see as McGill’s strengths in computational and data sciences?

I’ve only just arrived and almost every day in my conversations I continue to learn about some additional person, project, or group doing something of which I wasn’t aware. So, my sense of McGill’s strengths in this space are far from complete. The quality of the students is superb, of course, which is a huge motivator for developing programs at CDSI that will enable them to successfully pursue their dreams and passions where computing and data are involved (and they’re involved in almost everything these days).

At the same time, I’m aware of research strengths in core areas like AI and machine learning, Bayesian statistics and uncertainty quantification, computing systems, and biostatistics and epidemiology. And I’m aware of similar strengths across a wide spectrum of domain areas, ranging from data science for understanding multiple aspects of the human-Earth system (including biodiversity, climate, and sustainability, among others) to data science for biomedicine. I look forward to continuing to learn more.

Where do you see opportunities to build on these strengths?

I think our biggest opportunities – and where CDSI can contribute most impactfully – is where computing and data and systems meet. For example, where computer vision, robotics, and geography and earth sciences meet through drone-based measurement systems and machine learning prediction algorithms for environmental forecasting. Or where causal statistical inference, reinforcement learning, distributed computing, electronic medical records, and doctors meet to help provide improved medical care in remote and under-served populations. And where artificial intelligence, data engineering around social media platforms, and experts in communications, marketing, and relevant domain areas combine to combat misinformation.

How can McGill researchers get involved with the CDSI and draw on the resources it has to offer?

Reach out to us! Sign up for our mailing list, follow us on Twitter, or even just send me an email or drop by during my director’s office hours. Make sure you’re aware of the training we have planned, come to the CCF for consulting, and join in a research convergence exercise. And if you see an opportunity that you think CDSI can help the McGill community leverage that’s not on our radar, please let us know.

Learn more about the CDSI’s mission and how it can support your research at the launch event on September 20. Details.