Data Science Programming Bootcamps

From history and music to science and engineering, big data permeates a broad variety of fields. So it’s no surprise that participants of Northwestern’s Big Data Initiative: Programming Boot Camp reflected this growing diversity.

Held from September 7-17, the boot camp offered graduate students, undergraduates, postdoctoral fellows, and even staff and faculty members the opportunity to learn the programming skills needed to collect, process, and analyze data. More than 230 attendees represented 10 Northwestern schools, including the McCormick School of Engineering, The Graduate School, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Bienen School of Music, School of Education and Social Policy, School of Professional Studies, Kellogg School of Management, and School of Communication.

“We’re very pleased with the number and diversity of participants,” said Northwestern Engineering’s Luis Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering and organizer of the boot camp. “It just shows how important these skills are to every field.”

The boot camp introduced students to Python, a powerful and widely used programming language known for its readability. Participants completed exercises and projects using the language to build skills in software development, object-oriented programming, and simple algorithm development. The curriculum gradually introduced programming newcomers to core concepts and skills throughout the week.

Graduate student Matt Rotz studies DNA sequencing, an area known for producing large quantities of data. He had no previous experience with programming but works alongside bioinformaticians who use Python to interpret biological data on a daily basis.

“Learning programming was intimidating at first, but the value is obvious,” said Rotz, who studies chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “We produce so much data and need methods to handle it.”

In modern society, big data keeps piling up. While the information held within in it can be powerful, it is not always easy to unlock. Gaining the tools to manipulate and visualize data can give insights into some of the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change, disease outbreaks, disaster preparedness, health care disparity, and economic productivity.

“When you have access to data analytics tools, you can look at much larger sets,” said Peter Winter, a PhD student in Amaral’s lab and boot camp teaching assistant. “Combining your own strengths with the strengths of a computer is really powerful.”

Date Demand Enrollment Audience
September 2014 300 100 Graduate students
March 2015 (Spring Break) 150 100 Undergraduate students
September 2015 300 250 Undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff

Faculty Workshop: Doing Big Data Research

Following the interest generated by the Domain Dinner, Luis Amaral organized and chaired a half-day workshop aimed at increasing faculty know-how on entering Big Data research. Specifically, the workshop aimed to establish inter-disciplinary relationships between faculty, teach faculty about resources at Northwestern, and help the Information Technologies identify infrastructural needs for Big Data research. Additionally, it was hoped that the faculty interactions would prompt novel research questions and that faculty would be inspired to act on those ideas.

The workshop, which took place in January 2014, was attended by over 100 faculty members from the Chicago and Evanston campuses. As the Domain Dinner, it featured a large disciplinary diversity of presenters and participants—the presenters were Ramana Davuluri (Medicine), Kristian Hahn (Arts and Sciences), and Brian Uzzi (Management) and the panelists were Larry Birnbaum, Fabian Bustamante and Diego Klabjan (Engineering), Vicky Kalogera (Arts and Sciences) and Joe Paris (Information Technologies). The time commitment of Northwestern faculty to this activity and their continued interest truly demonstrates how important this area is to Northwestern.

Domain Dinner: The Possibilities of Big Data

Luis Amaral organized and chaired a Domain Dinner on Big Data that took place on March 2013. Domain Dinners are designed to stimulate faculty interactions across departments and disciplines and highlight Northwestern's distinctive interdisciplinarity. These events consist of cocktails, a program, and dinner, and provide an opportunity for faculty from both the Chicago and the Evanston campuses to gather in a relaxed environment for intellectual discourse.

The Domain Dinner Program originated in 1998 as a result of the strategic planning process for The Highest Order of Excellence, the University’s strategic plan at the time. In 2008 the dinners were renamed the Lawrence B. Dumas Domain Dinners, in honor of the late Provost's vision and support of the program.

"The possibilities of Big Data" was one of the most well attended Domain Dinners at Northwestern and generated a great deal of interest from the faculty. It was also one of the Domain Dinners with the greatest disciplinary diversity of speakers: Cate Brinson (material scientist, Engineering), David Figlio (economist, Education and Social Policy), Michael Schmitt (physicist, Arts and Sciences), and Justin Starren (physician and informatician, Medicine).