The clean, tidy surfaces of Genevera Allen’s office give no hint of the veritable mountains of digital data she wrangles on a daily basis. As an associate professor of statistics at Rice with an appointment at Baylor College of Medicine, her work is aimed at developing new tools to help scientists make discoveries from big and complex data sets.
As a dedicated teacher, Allen displays a deep passion for the potential of real-world data science projects to prepare students for leadership in the digital age. Both a rising star in statistical research and a forward-thinking teacher, she is helping to ensure that Rice faculty and students are at the forefront of a moment when the sheer power of analytical data is consistently making headlines.
Allen’s goal — to get students interacting with data — is compelled by the philosophy that hands-on learning teaches the communication and creative problem-solving skills that will serve these students far into the future. Allen’s most ambitious initiative is a one-of-a-kind data science laboratory launched in the fall of 2018. Funded by a $4 million gift from Kevin ’87 and Catherine Harvey, the Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge (D2K Lab) coordinates interdisciplinary research teams of students and faculty to solve real data challenges sourced from across campus, the Texas Medical Center, industry and local government.
Led by mentors from Rice data science faculty and partnering with
City of Houston employees, D2K students will build predictive models
from existing databases of 3-1-1 calls. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.
David Brodkey ’20 was an undergraduate student in Allen’s Data Science Consulting Clinic course, in which scholars from across campus arrive with armfuls of data and research, and students work in teams to determine how to best approach their specific problem sets. Brodkey, a statistics major, says the experience exposed him to a wide range of data problems. “My work at the clinic reinforced knowledge I’d gained from past statistics courses,” he says. “But it also taught me how to communicate with people outside of my field.”
“Teaching these types of experiential learning classes is the best way to really get to know my students,” explains Allen, who oversees the clinic, builds the data teams and serves as mentor. “As we worked through data problems, I was able to see the ways the students communicated and problem-solved, which showed me what projects would help them to learn and grow.”
In its inaugural semester, the D2K Lab offered two classes: the Data Science Consulting Clinic, which places students on teams that work on short term projects on campus, and the D2K Learning Lab, a course that focuses on in-depth, semester- or year-long data science projects with industry affiliates.
“The goal is to empower students — to help them to find something they are passionate about and to give them the skills to make a difference in their field.”
The D2K Lab, like the wildly successful Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen — a hands-on center for engineering design and research — will provide new learning opportunities for students while also advancing the university’s research reputation and establishing Rice as a national leader in data science education. The lab will also support an important building block in the V2C2 initiative to provide transformative undergraduate education through experiential opportunities and faculty mentorship.
Allen is emphatic that the D2K Lab provides the experiential learning that is critical to educating a well-rounded and well-prepared data scientist. “Data science is a creative pursuit,” she says. “The abilities to communicate and problem-solve are essential, and these important skills cannot be taught by memorizing formulas or applying set strategies. They are learned by experience, and that’s why experiential learning is so critical.”