Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

University explores interdisciplinary initiatives with proposed data center


Initiatives focusing on identifying and supporting cross-school programs are beginning to take shape as the semester progresses. Three such initiatives, which were laid out by University President Anthony Monaco in a Sept. 9 messageto the university, include development on a proposed Center for Computational and Data-Intensive Research, progress on a data science major and the hiring of the university’s first Bridge Professor, Professor of Psychology Jan P. de Ruiter.

Creating a Center for Computational and Data-Intensive Research

The center is the broadest of the three initiatives, designed to involve every school and discipline of the university, according to Professor of Mathematics Bruce Boghosian, who chaired the working group that proposed the center.

“The center should have a presence on all three campuses of the university, [and be] absolutely cross-disciplinary,” he said.

The ultimate goal of the center would be to create a culture of collaboration around data and computational science research, Boghosian said.  There is a sense that the university has the necessary expertise to excel in these fields, but it lacks a corresponding culture, he explained.

"We have the high-performance computing cluster; we don’t have the culture of high-performing computing,” Boghosian said. “The center creates the culture. The center catalyzes interactions between people from departments.”

The proposed center would work within three areas: research, pedagogy and training, according to Boghosian. He said that the center would help facilitate research by connecting scholars who need the expertise of big data and computational science for their research with those who have skills in these areas. According to Boghosian, the center would also position the university to be more competitive for certain types of external grants.

In terms of pedagogy and training, Boghosian said the center would provide advice and resources for new majors and certificate programs, but it would not grant degrees. Bogosian also said that Tufts was uniquely positioned to allow for the kind of interdisciplinary work necessary for these initiatives.

“There are things we can do in data science because of the nature of Tufts and the low barriers of cooperation, [and] interdisciplinary work between departments, that other places can’t do,” he said.

Boghosian added that it is hard to find comparisons to this proposed interdisciplinary data center at Tufts or other universities.

“At one point the planning group-- I think we were even asked-- 'what’s comparable?' and we ended up tossing up our hands at that question,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it [that we're aware of]."

The center was born in Tufts’ Strategic Plan, published in 2013, according to Provost David Harris.

The plan notes that “research increasingly requires access to equipment and individuals who can acquire, analyze and disseminate large data sets,” and proposed the creation of a working group dedicated to “identifying the resources that are necessary to enhance our research and educational capacity in this critical area.”

The working group, which was comprised of 31 individuals representing departments and schools across the university, decided that a center would be the best way of addressing the need for data science, computational science and statistics education and research, according to Boghosian. The working group then broke into a smaller planning group to give more practical recommendations to the provost on how such a center would be implemented, Boghosian said.

It is now up to the Office of the Provost to turn the idea into reality, he added.

“I am now developing next steps, informed by the group’s recommendations and ongoing engagement with school and university leaders,” Harris wrote in an email to the Daily.

Monaco also said in his Sept. 9 message to the university that the administration was making progress toward creating the center.



New Data Science Major

Other groups at the university are already working on new majors that the center could help facilitate.  Faculty from the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with faculty from the Department of Mathematics have already had informal meetings over the spring and summer about offering a data science major, according to Professor in the Department of Computer Science Lenore Cowen.

“Our faculty working group had pretty good agreement about what courses we thought should form the core of a data science undergraduate major, and we have faculty that either already teach those courses or are ready to teach them,” Cowen wrote in an email to the Daily, noting that the major would probably be offered as two separate degree programs in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering.

According to Cowen, the nature of the major may depend on how the Center for Computational and Data-Intensive Research develops.

“We are waiting to see how things fit into the big cross-school framework that the president and provost will announce!” Cowen said.

Harris noted that the administration will have announcements later in the semester regarding other programs of study related to data science.

Expansion of Bridge Professorship Program

According to the 2013 Strategic Plan, such interdisciplinary programs may be further facilitated by the hiring of new Bridge Professors such as de Ruiter, who teaches across disciplines in the computer science and psychology departments.

De Ruiter hopes he can teach students to think across disciplines in his role as a Bridge Professor this academic year.

“I really hope to…convert [the position] also into a teaching bridge because I think it’s very important that if students want to be multidisciplinary they have to really learn both sides and that is not easy as it sounds,” de Ruiter said.

De Ruiter said he is interested in helping computer science majors learn about psychological methods, and vice versa, in his role.

“[I'm going] to give a course in experimental methods for computer [scientists] and computer programming for psychologists,” he said.


De Ruiter is not currently teaching courses this semester. Having spent his academic career in Germany, he said he is using this time to learn about the educational practices at an elite American research university like Tufts.


While de Ruiter’s scholarship mirrors the interdisciplinary approach taken by the proposed center and data science major, he noted that his research would not be considered “data science.” De Ruiter said his research focuses on human gesturing, conversational turn-taking and robot-human communication.

In his email, the Provost also said the university was currently searching for a Bridge Professor in cybersecurity, forming a bridge between the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Department of Computer Science.