“Our central mission is to integrate methods and ways of thinking from the computational and social sciences in the service of real-world applications,” said Lab Director and Stevens University Professor in the Department of Computer Science Duncan Watts. “We are also dedicated to building research infrastructure to support mass collaboration around shared data, and to facilitate open, transparent, and replicable science. We have a great team and a great set of initial projects. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
Some of those projects include a set of interactive data dashboards that utilize demographic and mobility data around COVID-19 to help inform decisions, as well as a project “dedicated to enhancing media transparency and accountability at the scale of the entire information ecosystem,” according to the Lab site.
As a former professor at ESSEC Business School, Yakubovich is excited to bring his management expertise to the Lab.
“Creating a hub for cutting-edge research at the intersection of social science and high-tech requires genuine intrapreneurship, open and secure digital organization, and a functionally diverse team of staff speaking in one language,” said Yakubovich. “Under the auspices of three professional schools—each as renowned as it is independently-minded—this task is especially challenging but equally rewarding.”
CIS looks forward to the exciting work the Lab will produce. Visit the CSS Lab site, and be sure to check our blog for important updates and research findings.
Humans have never been more connected to one another, though the speed with which we can share with one another has its drawbacks. For example, the spread of COVID-19, as well as misinformation about it, have both been facilitated by our highly connected online and in-person networks. Fortunately, the branches of mathematics known as information theory and network theory can help us to understand how both systems work and how to control them.
NSF CAREER Award recipient Shirin Saeedi Bidokhti, Assistant Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, will use the grant to conduct research on both online social networks and COVID-19 contact tracing networks. As case studies, these real-word examples will inform networked systems’ theoretical foundations, as well as the design of learning and decision-making algorithms that help us to make sense of them. She will also use the funding to develop a new course module that brings information and network theory into practice for undergraduate students at Penn.
Using a combination of tools from information theory, network theory and machine learning, Saeedi Bidokhti aims to narrow the gap between theory and practice through algorithm-informed real-time data sampling, estimation and inference in networked systems. Her work aims to produce smarter algorithms that can extract information, infer about these systems, and ultimately provide more precise control of them.
While such algorithms are already improving our ability to understand complex networks, there is always a tradeoff that needs to be considered when it comes time to use that information.
“In information extraction, knowing when to sample with real-time data makes a difference, says Saeedi Bidokhti. “It helps us to know if we should act now or wait to sample, facing the tradeoff of gathering the most information while minimizing costs to most efficiently control the system.”
Sponsored non-profit organisation Very Large Database Endowment Inc., the award focuses on the cumulative lifetime work of the researcher. Davidson was specifically honored “for groundbreaking work in the areas of data integration, data provenance and her efforts in cross-disciplinary research, namely bridging databases and biology.”
“Really it was more that I was one of the early people to help define what interesting topics, there were in bioinformatics,” said Davidson.
The former Department Chair of CIS wrote an award acceptance speech titled “It’s not just Cookies and Tea” that blended the focal points of her life’s work — data integration, provenance and concurrencies — with personal life. The two are often inextricable.
“I talked about my parents and how they influenced where I am today: that was provenance,” said Davidson. “I talked about how i’ve built programs to recruit, retain and promote women in engineering, computer science. You have to integrate, as well as have cookies and tea.”
Davidson’s advocacy for other women, both within the engineering field and without, has also been a defining facet of her professional career. The Founder of Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) at Penn was hoping her speech would also serve as a point of motivation.
“I was also really trying to encourage other women, “said Davidson. “I know that it’s been extremely hard for for women with young children during the pandemic.”
The Women in Database Research Award is one of many presented at the annual VLDB Conference, this year hosted in hybrid format, August 16-20 in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the VLDB site, "this series is perhaps the most international (in terms of participation, technical content, organization, and location) among all comparable events."
Professors Susan Davidson and Boon Thau Loo have been awarded the 2021 Ruth and Joel Spira Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Sponsored by the Spira co-founded Lutron Electronics in 2019, the award specifically recognizes outstanding faculty within the C.I.S. department at Penn, and has corresponding awards at universities across the country.
For Professor Davidson, the Spira Award is the first teaching award she has received in her nearly 40-year career.
“I think it’s especially meaningful because it’s difficult for women in STEM fields,” said Davidson. “Women in STEM fields tend not to rate as highly as their counterparts, because of a certain amount of gender bias.”
The Founder of SEAS’ Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) received her Spira Award “for her critical role in defining our initiatives in data science and databases, and especially for the outstanding job she has done teaching CIS 545 and 550,” according to Department Chair Zack Ives.
Davidson says that it was Professor Loo who pushed her to revamp her CIS 550 (Introduction to Database and Information Systems), and reform it so it could become a part of the MCIT Online curriculum. Doing so required the course to be broken down into smaller, punchier segments: more frequent quizzes, a normally 90-minute lecture efficiently split into bite-sized, twelve-minute fragments.
“It was Boon who basically talked me into it, by saying how much it had improved his course,” said Davidson. “The argument that he used was that his teaching ratings had jumped up quite a bit as a result of that.”
Right in the middle of recording the different aspects of CIS 550, fine-tuning and taking a closer look at how to make it a more immersive experience for students, work-from-home was imposed due to COVID-19. Without knowing it, Professor Davidson was preparing for a complete online transition.
“That’s the second reason I’m very thankful to Boon. he convinced me to do this and gave me the impetus to improve the course and, by doing so, I was very well prepared for the teaching during the pandemic,” said Davidson. “I know the students really appreciated the quality of the recordings: that’s recognition to the online MCIT staff and the program and how well they are able to produce or help us produce our lecture segments.”
Boon Thau Loo
Professor Boon Thau Loo holds his colleague and fellow Spira Award winner in the highest regard as well.
“Anytime you got an opportunity to win an award with Susan that’s a great honor,” said Loo. “She’s always the gold standard for me as far as being a good teacher, being very dedicated to teaching.”
According to Professor Ives, the Associate Dean for SEAS Grad Programs “was recognized for his superb teaching and mentoring of students, both inside and beyond the classroom. Students praise his clarity of explanations, his passion and expertise, and his positivity.”
Professor Loo serves as an inspiration for those with a calling to teach, but who must overcome personal obstacles in order to excel in that calling. He confesses that he did not start his career as an effective teacher: he is not naturally a good public speaker, and his initial Penn course student reviews were horrible.
“I remember my first CIS 505 was a complete disaster. I don’t have a tremendous stage presence,” said Loo. “As a clueless Assistant Professor, it took awhile for me to learn how to teach. I tried incorporate a more personal touch, get to know the students well.”
Professor Loo’s main classroom philosophies boil down to practicality: he emphasizes the importance of group work and communication, and insists a complete educational experience means getting your hands dirty.
“You cannot learn operating systems just by reading a textbook. Students have to learn by doing,” said Loo. “I’m a big proponent of project-based learning. I don’t think, especially in software systems, you can learn just in isolation, by reading a textbook or from PowerPoint.”