Deans Blog: Our School During the Pandemic

These are unprecedented times and the School of Data Science (SDS) team – students, faculty and staff – have gone above and beyond in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am heartfelt and extremely proud of every one of them. 

This response began when the University of Virginia (UVA) made the difficult, but vitally important, decision to not have the students return to the university after spring break which ended March 15. What followed was the monumental task of moving all classes online in just a few days. SDS was relatively well positioned in this regard as we had already invested heavily in online learning. Our residential MS in Data Science (MSDS) program is mirrored with an equivalent online program which we have developed with Noodle Partners. Before the pandemic we already had more students working online than in the classroom. This experience immediately served us well by having faculty experienced in teaching online but also bodes well for the future as I will explain.

As the pandemic has unfolded, with a peak expected here in Charlottesville in mid to late April based on current modelling estimates, we are as ready as we can be. My heart goes out to our leadership, our frontline clinical staff and indeed all at UVA who have rallied to get us ready to provide the care that is needed now and going forward when not all the needed resources have been available. Plato first pointed out in the Republic that “necessity is the mother of invention” and we have seen that at UVA through such efforts as the development of a novel COVID-19 test being widely used, the pandemic modeling work of the Biocomplexity Institute and our own research efforts within the SDS. Every day our own UVA Today has inspiring evidence of our community using their skills to contribute something positive, ranging as widely as discussions of prior history of pandemics, to mental health in times like this, to new engineering feats that can make a difference.

Somewhat ironically, the guiding principles that are driving the development of the SDS, which prior to the pandemic were somewhat novel in academia, are now on full display – interdisciplinarity, open research, nimble, agile decision making and collaboration immediately come to mind. As our President, Jim Ryan, said with the decision to change our grading scheme for the spring semester to default to credit/no credit, “what usually takes three years we accomplished in 3 hours.” It takes a pandemic. Let’s hope that this mindset and determination to be more than we were, persists after the pandemic has passed. Logic would say, obviously it should persist; politics and economics may dictate otherwise.

In alignment with the way the university is thinking, SDS sees a three-pronged response to the virus:

  1. Preserve the core
  2. Protect the most vulnerable
  3. Innovate

Let me outline what we mean by each. I preface this response with the following. There is no escaping that COVID-19 will have a deleterious impact on our fledgling school. However, its impact will be short-lived and we are moving forward on the premise that even for a five year plan the impact will be minimal, but that is not to say we should not consider the implications, notably the opportunities, that these terrible events provide.

Preserve the core. Our core currently consists of our high quality Masters in Data Science program, both online and on Grounds, our emerging undergraduate programs, our ever strengthening research enterprise, driven by new hires and our community projects. Making sure these are operating at full capacity and suitably resourced must come before embarking on new, less tested endeavors. It is our responsibility to those that have gone before to preserve the integrity and quality of our enterprise. We cannot slip. We must continue to launch new careers, contribute to the wellbeing of our communities and drive human knowledge forward.

Protect the most vulnerable. Financial, mental and physical wellbeing are all impacted by the pandemic. Geographic location is in play now for foreign students who can’t return home and for students coming in the future. A situation that will likely extend to domestic students as hotspots remain around the country and movements remain restricted. Our SDS student services are working very hard to maintain the status quo and we are looking at what we can do financially to lessen the burden. Services that go beyond the student relief services already in place at the UVA level.

Likewise, our faculty and staff are feeling the stress or conducting both family and professional lives 24 hours per day. As a fledgling school our bench is shallow. We cannot afford to lose team members. The best way to counter is to continue our hiring strategy to provide human capital and relieve the strain. All searches for new team members continue in earnest.

Innovate. Society was changing rapidly to become more data driven before the crisis. That change will accelerate post-crisis. SDS must take advantage of these changes. Opportunities will obviously arise in healthcare where predictive modeling, which we now, for the first time, look to on a daily basis, will become standard practice for prevention as well as cure. The nefarious activities that go on, catalyzed by the crisis, will provide new opportunities in cybersecurity, fraud detection in the financial system, and a reevaluation of the ethical principles that govern data. With the disruption of every imaginable supply chain, new opportunities will arise for how to match supply and demand under any circumstance. Education will not go back to what it was before the crisis. We will see a more hybrid approach to learning where online and residential programs are more integrated to enrich the learning experience. Where the added benefit of digital learning will be exploited to provide personalized education. Research will pivot to be more translational and more immediately applied to benefit society.  Disparities on full display during the pandemic will lead to action in ways we have not seen thus far, informed by data. In short, the value of data science and hence the demand for trained professionals and the research they carry out will not subside, but rather become even more pertinent. The School of Data Science must be ready.

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About Phil Bourne

Stephenson Dean of the School of Data Science and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia