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Advancing historically underepresented populations in STEM and Data Science Careers

Chaminade University provides new opportunities in STEM and Data Science careers for the historically underrepresented populations of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Region. Bro. Ed Brink, SM, Vice President for Mission and Rector at Chaminade University of Honolulu sends us this update.

Dr. Rylan Chong, director of Chaminade’s Data Science program, calls it nothing less than historic. In early August, the National Science Foundation (NSF) INCLUDES Alliance selected Chaminade University to lead a groundbreaking $10 million grant project aimed at creating new opportunities in STEM and data science careers for historically underrepresented populations across Hawai‘i and the Pacific Region.

The grant announcement, Chong said, is one of those moments that educators will look back on in a decade or so and recognize as a turning point—the beginning of new initiatives that opened doors for students, the institutions that serve them, and nonprofit and business communities in the region. “This is about leveling up, addressing capacity in the workforce and making sure our low-income and underrepresented students have an opportunity to bring their perspectives to data science,” Chong said, adding that welcoming diverse populations into data science will ensure their voices are heard. “You can apply data science to every field—education, healthcare and mental health, environment science and climate change, and criminal justice,” he said. “It’s not just about crunching numbers but ensuring the numbers reflect different viewpoints and getting those numbers into the right hands.” That’s why the Data Science program at Chaminade doesn’t just want to prepare students for competitive careers at the Googles and Amazons of the world. “We also want to find opportunities for students working in grassroots and community organizations, being able to contribute to projects they’re interested in while making a difference to the places where they live,” Chong said.

The competitive NSF grant is one of the largest Chaminade has ever received and reflects the strong data science work and foundational programs already in place at the University.

With the transformative funding, Chaminade’s United Nations-affiliated CIFAL Honolulu Center will spearhead the launch of the university’s new Alliance Supporting Pacific Impact through Computational Excellence (ALL-SPICE) with a consortium of partners, putting a strong emphasis on leadership for sustainable development and efforts aimed at tackling the growing impacts of climate change.

“Chaminade University is really quite honored to lead this important initiative charged with empowering STEM leaders for tomorrow from across Hawai‘i and the Pacific, equipping them with the cutting-edge tools they need to drive sustainable development projects,” said President Lynn Babington, PhD. “This grant is part of a collective and exciting effort to meet a pivotal moment in our history by expanding opportunities to a new generation of change-makers. Our mission of service is foundational to everything we do at Chaminade and so we are proud to drive a culturally informed initiative ultimately designed to help build healthier, more resilient and socially just communities.” The first ALL-SPICE programming and opportunities launched in the Fall.

Dr. Helen Turner, research director of the Chaminade United Nations CIFAL Honolulu Center and a professor of Biology, is principal investigator for ALL-SPICE along with Chong. She said the funding will focus on three central efforts: bolstering training and educating, conducting data science research on sustainable development projects, and building capacity (including infrastructure) for data analytics in Hawai‘i and the Pacific. “This work takes a village,” Turner said, adding the grant was the result of years of collaboration between Chaminade and other institutions to step up programming and underscore the importance of data science to the community. The Chaminade-led consortium includes the University of Hawaii Data Science Institute, East-West Center and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). “The National Science Foundation identified the power of data analytics for education, research and industry. They use this phrase ‘harnessing the data revolution’ because right now we are all swimming in an ocean of data,” Turner said. “We can either drown as individuals, communities and society or we can swim and surf that wave—take data and turn it into wisdom, knowledge and action-based plans.” Turner said that’s exactly what the Data Science program at Chaminade is focused on. And the grant will exponentially increase that work, expanding opportunities to more students, community leaders and institutions so they can use data for the greater good. “Data and social justice go hand and hand. To me, it’s a very obvious and beautiful linkage,” Turner said. For example, she says that health inequities are fundamentally a data problem—failing to get the right resources to the right people or not fully understanding the root causes for gaps in care. Environmental problems, economic development, educational gaps can be approached similarly. “Because a big piece of this is meeting the needs of the community,” she added. “No university in the United States can keep up with the pace of demand for data scientists. We want our students to succeed, but we also don’t want our own organizations in Hawai‘i to be left behind.” That’s why the grant will, in part, fund research or hands-on internships for students. Already, Chaminade students in data science are working on a plethora of important projects—looking at everything from maternal mortality in Pacific populations to recidivism in Hawai‘i. “If you ask what is a data scientist, the answer is everything,” she said. “With data science, students undoubtedly can follow their personal passions and make a positive impact. This is ultimately a vehicle for students’ passions to change the world. It’s also about democratizing our relationship with data.”

CIFAL Honolulu Executive Director and Dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dr. Gail Grabowsky said data visualization and interpretation are a central focus of the grant’s programming. That’s because it’s not enough to analyze the data. Helping the community (especially non-data scientists) understand what the data says is just as important.

“We think data alone will change the world and it won’t,” said Grabowsky, who is also dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Chaminade. “What will change the world is many people working together on shared goals, using data along the way to inform policy and guide next steps.” She added that CIFAL Honolulu envisions the Pacific Ocean as a “connector,” helping to spur conversations around both modern approaches and traditional knowledge and practices. Indigenous ways of knowing, Grabowsky added, could also bring about new perspectives and questions.

Dr. Lance Askildson, Chaminade provost, called the grant and its potential impact “incredibly significant.” He added, “This is really about creating a network of institutions across the Pacific, of which Chaminade is the lead, to provide education, training and research.” He said a key part of the funding is working with community stakeholders to help them tell their own community stories with data. “Particularly here in the West, there is a tremendous amount of data being collected on us at all times of the day,” he said. “Being in control of your data is just like being in control of your Facebook profile—it’s a chance to tell a story with greater integrity that prioritizes your needs.”

ALL-SPICE co-Principal Investigator Dr. Kelly Gaither, the director of health analytics at TACC and a professor of Maternal Health at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, first started hearing about Chaminade’s work in data science in 2005 as part of a grant review committee. What struck her the most, she said, is there was no tension between the pursuit of data science and traditional Hawaiian and Pacific knowledge and ways of knowing. “Chaminade was really trying to chop down any notion that Hawaiian science is not science,” she said. “This is the true definition of capacity building. Chaminade is really leading this, one community stakeholder and one student at a time.” Gaither added she’s especially excited about the workforce opportunities the grant has to offer. “We can dream big, peacefully coexist and all move forward,” she said. “That’s what is possible.”

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