How Data Science in Houston is Driving Global Solutions
The Houston region has one of the nation's highest densities of top tier talent in technology, from engineers to IT workers. Houston's position as the 12th largest tech sector in the U.S. is supported by industry subsectors, such asÂ software development, programming and data science. Â
Data science, in particular, is rapidly developingÂ as an essential interdisciplinary field in Houston and around the world. The Rice University Ken Kennedy Institute is hosting its annual Ken Kennedy AI and Data Science ConferenceÂ October 25-27 to help foster growth and collaboration within the field. Organizers say the event is geared towards professionals working in various disciplines, including machine learning, data mining and artificial intelligence.Â
WeÂ sat down with Angela Wilkins, Executive Director of the Rice University Ken Kennedy Institute, to learn more about the conference and how data science is helping to solve the worldâs biggest challenges.
Can you tell us about your background and your current role at the Ken Kennedy Institute?
The only thing I ever wanted to be was a scientist. In graduate school, I pursued physics because Einstein was my hero. Later, I wanted to have a different type of impact, so I switched to computational biology, which led me back to Houston.
At Baylor College of Medicine, I spent a decade working with some of the greatest scientists in the world (many of them are here in Houston). I had the opportunity to understand the complexity of disease and the reasons why solving these problems is hard. But I could see how we were decades away from many solutions due to data quality, infrastructure, and policy.
I realized science could only take us so far. Solutions have to make it to production; they have to scale. This led to starting a company where we focused on creating data science and AI solutions for other startups. This was an amazing opportunity and I miss my team immensely, but I began to see the complexity of providing true solutions through innovation.
The blocker I kept seeing was the feedback loop between research, commercializationÂ and policy. We can only solve big problems if solutions scale and the world wants to use them. All backgrounds are needed at the table to figure this out. We need resources to be allowed to innovate, make partnershipsÂ and have those discussions to influence policy. Joining the Ken Kennedy Institute as Executive Director provided the opportunity to be part of the solution.
What are the types of global challenges that data science and high-performance computing are helping solve?
Data science and high-performance computing are part of everything we do now. Our next great challenges are democratizing computation and making the world more equitable through data.Â
We have startups like ThirdAI, which is speeding up deep learning technology without the need for specialized hardware like GPUs. Their technology will make AI more accessible and allow the little guys to compete with the likes of Google and Amazon. On the other side of the spectrum, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is leading the way to improve people's lives through data and analytics.Â
What makes Houston the ideal place for this type of work?
Houston is at the center of the worldâs great challenges. Because of the Texas Medical Center, local energy industryÂ and being a coastal city, we have the advantage of truly understanding the impact of health care, energyÂ and climate change. These things are part of our everyday life.Â We know the needs.
Data scientists will be instrumental in developing new medicines and treatments, to use energy resources effectively, to create safe andÂ smart cities, and to help understand and mitigate our changing climate. This is a great place to have an impact through technology.
How closely does the institute engage with Houstonâs corporate base and other institutions in its work
We work with industry every day. We host two conferences; our data science conference in October and our Energy HPC Conference in the spring. Both of these conferences are made possible by our amazing committees made up of the Houston community. Conferences are key to fostering innovation. We can not innovate in bubbles - we need conversation and collaboration. We want to be that conduit to connect academia, industry, startupsÂ and nonprofits on emerging technology.Â
The Ken Kennedy Institute hosts summer Machine Learning workshops for corporate executives and health care professionals. We help industry sponsor research and students in AI, dataÂ and computing. This year, we are doing a special one-day technical workshop to highlight the latest in deep learning and high-performance computing with Anshumali Shrivastava, Rice University faculty and ThirdAI co-founder.
Your unique background spans academia, entrepreneurshipÂ and venture capital. How have you seen Houstonâs innovation ecosystem grow over time?
Houston is a strange beast. We have multiple innovation ecosystems that have grown with almost no overlap with each other. In the Texas Medical Center, we have more people studying disease than anywhere else in the world. Then, we have this energy ecosystem that is massive and changing.
The common thread is technology. Each ecosystem has become drivers of new data science and AI. If one wants to know the future needs of the world, they should be here in Houston.
When I became an entrepreneur, the startup ecosystem felt incredibly small. Some days, I thought we all fit in the two floors of Station Houston downtown. I remember all these incredible young people that now move the ecosystem forward:Â Serafina Lalany, Alex de la Fuente, Christina Galib, Milad Khakzadghomi, Payal Patel, Emily Reiser, Sammy Nava, Joanna Nathan.Â I wish I could name everyone. The ecosystem is still small, but now we have momentum.
What are you most looking forward to this year?Â
I look forward to seeing the dust settle. We have all absorbed a large collective trauma due to COVID. Some days it feels like we have found ourselves in the worst timeline. I like to think we will be more resilient and forward-thinking. I already see more collaboration happening across the city. As we rebound, this will be a good time for innovation and transformation.Â
Register for the 2021 Virtual Ken Kennedy AI and Data Science Conference here.Â Learn more about Houstonâs booming tech industry here.