The Data Science Revolution: JCU Welcomes Dr. Francesca Dominici from Harvard


JCU welcomed Dr. Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Co-Director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative for a conversation with Visiting Professor Deanna Lee on The Revolutionary Role of Data Science, on January 16.

The event was part of the Dean of Academic Affairs Lecture Series at John Cabot University.

Deanna Lee and Francesca Dominici

Deanna Lee (left) with Francesca Dominici

Data is everywhere! As Dr. Dominici pointed out, data is ubiquitous. Every aspect of our lives involves data, from our mobile phones and ATM cards to our health records. We cannot avoid data. Key questions arise. How is this data being used? How is it being analyzed? Who has access to this data? How can data be used to improve our lives? What are the risks? To what extent will our privacy be compromised? What are the ethical aspects that must be discussed?

How can it help? During the conversation, Dr. Dominici illustrated some of the many ways in which data science can help us to improve our lives, from infectious disease forecasting to higher education financing design; from analysis of high-dimensional datasets in astronomy and medicine to prediction of earthquakes.

Working together. An interdisciplinary approach to Data Science brings together the expertise necessary to achieve an impartial analysis and optimal use of the broadest possible amount of data. The common denominator of data brings the specific ‘languages’ spoken by different disciplines together.  The result is novel and more effective applications and a reduced risk of biased interpretations of collected data.

For example, neurologists working with astronomers applied data analysis for 3-D visualization to improve techniques for localizing brain tumors. The Undiagnosed Disease Network (UDN) of the National Human Genome Research Institute provides the resources necessary to diagnose rare diseases. In the end, these results bring new solutions to old problems and, most importantly, inform policy decisions.

What is the Harvard Data Science Initiative (HDSI)? Harvard University is seizing the opportunity to “bridge the intellectual domains and unlock the full potential of data science” in this flagship, cross-university project in cooperative innovation. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Francesca Dominici

Francesca Dominici

What about the ethics of it all? Citing Voltaire, “with great power comes great responsibility”, Deanna Lee asked Francesca Dominici to speak about the ethical issues involved in Data Science. Data Scientists are working on a Hippocratic Oath, similar to that taken by physicians. This is a completely new area of science that requires collective reflection and the establishment of clear guidelines. The use of data for the collective good, to solve the world’s biggest problems, is why Dr. Dominici is so passionate about her work.

How can teaching data science make a difference? Upward mobility is effected by teaching data science skills. Dr. Dominici described an online 12-week course of the basic skills of data science; after taking the course,  high school students from underserved areas of Baltimore were able to find jobs based on their new skills.

Women in Science – In a field in which her colleagues have been predominantly male, Dominici spoke about being a woman in the world of science, stressing how important it is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. Follow your passion. It’s hard work; on a daily basis. There are inevitable and frequent moments of discouragement and rejection. Persist!  “Women sometimes feel uncomfortable speaking out and making their argument”.

Can women have it all? You can’t do it all. You need a balance and a support system of family members and paid collaborators. When Dominici was raising her children in the U.S., she had her grandmother living with her who prepared lovely Italian food. When you can, outsource daily chores that take you away from what brings meaning to your life. She reflected on the fact that she returned to work just two weeks after giving birth. The reaction she received from her students and colleagues was one of surprise. Was she overly dedicated to her work? At the time, she felt the need, for herself, to return to work. However, Dominici points out, don’t expect to be at the top of your game during periods like that in your life. You have to accept that you might be less productive, but still, be persistent and keep your goals in mind.

Supporting Women in Academia – Dr. Dominici leads the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Committee on the Advancement of Women Faculty (CAWF) and previously co-chaired the University Committee on the Status of Women at Johns Hopkins University.

During the Q&A session, Dr. Dominici addressed questions about how data science might be part of an Italian effort to maximize the return on the national investment in forming young minds, how can we stop or reverse the “brain drain”, the “Dark Side of Big Data” and data ethics, data science and air quality regulations, data driven solutions to pressing issues such as gun violence and the opioid epidemic in the U.S., and the role of scientists in informing public policy.

This event was made possible through a collaboration with Confcommercio, Imprese per Italia, the Harvard Club of Italy and The Harvard Data Science Initiative.

@JohnCabotRome @Harvard_Data @francescadomin8

Watch the video of Dr. Francesca Dominici’s talk at JCU

Read the article (in Italian) “Dalla Capitale a Harvard: Francesca Dominici e la scienza dei dati” (Corriere della Sera)
Read the article (in Italian) “Il «caso Dominici»: Italia-Usa, solo andata per la statistica romana” (Corriere della Sera, Roma/Cronaca)
Watch the interview (in Italian) “Il potere dei big data” (RAI TV )