Students tackle data science questions in Summer Undergraduate Data Science program

August 16, 2022 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

What causes glacial periods to end? Can machine learning help make medical decisions? Can money buy happiness?

These intriguing questions were among those studied during the 2022 Summer Undergraduate Data Science (SUDS) Research Program run by the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Data Sciences Institute (DSI), U of T’s hub for data science research.

SUDS pairs faculty members with undergraduate students — referred to in the program as scholars — from universities across Canada who are interested in data science careers.

“The DSI SUDS program is about inspiring the next generation of data scientists and giving undergraduate students an opportunity to explore data science as a career opportunity,” says Laura Rosella, DSI associate director of education and training, and an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology.

“In addition to their research projects, these students are provided with a full set of data science networking, academic and professional development opportunities. And we couldn’t be more thrilled to have the chance to inspire them and hopefully kickstart their careers in this exciting field. They are truly an exceptional bunch!”

The variety of SUDS projects reflects the growing number of disciplines increasingly reliant on data skills and expertise. Three projects involving Arts & Science faculty members and students addressed questions in psychology, earth sciences and the intersection of machine learning and healthcare.

The SUDS program has filled my summer with an unbelievable amount of learning, fun, joy and community. It’s hard not to feel like this summer has redefined my path in life, filling me with enthusiasm for a career in research, and connecting me with people that I hope I get to keep working with. 

What causes ice ages to end?

SUDS scholar and Innis College member, Tina Tsan is working with Ulrich Wortmann, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences on an analysis of why the last ice age came to a sudden end.

During glacial periods, ocean levels dropped as water is taken up in glaciers. This exposed the continental shelf, triggering a chemical reaction that released large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Tsan and Ulrich’s analysis supports the idea that this CO2 may have warmed the atmosphere enough to end the last ice age.

“The work I'm doing in SUDS is an extension of my previous undergraduate research into changes in ocean chemistry,” says Tsan. “By exploring the data science side of this work, I now have a better understanding of my research and this gives me a solid foundation for the fall when I start my master’s degree in earth sciences.

She says, “For me, the biggest reward from the SUDS program has been how it’s broadened my perspective and understanding of what data science is and how it's used in different fields.” 

“The SUDS program is fantastic,” says Wortmann. “Especially for students who are not embedded in a large research group or who are working in a field where few of their peers have an interest in data science. I really hope this program will continue.”

Can machine learning help make medical decisions?

SUDS scholar and a member of St. Michael’s College, Yingke Wang is working with Rahul Krishnan, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology within the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Krishnan’s research lies at the intersection of machine learning and healthcare, and among other projects, his lab is working to redesign patient risk scores. Risk scores are metrics used in hospitals to predict aspects of a patient’s care and inform clinical decisions like who should get an organ transplant.

One of the ways such scores are evaluated is with a population simulator called LivSim which simulates how a group of people might be affected by a specific choice of risk score.

“Yingke will be working to help optimize LivSim,” says Krishnan. “His work will get it operational and running efficiently, so we can evaluate the efficacy of some of the novel risk scores designed in the lab.

“It's been wonderful to see the support that SUDS provides to young scholars like Yingke,” says Krishnan. “Introducing students to research early is an important step for them to see the opportunities that graduate study can provide."

“Thanks to SUDS, I’m learning how to combine machine learning algorithms in the healthcare industry as well as explore survival analysis,” says Wang. “Plus, the self-learning skills I gain will be essential to me for approaching graduate study.”

Can money buy happiness?

SUDS scholar Anthony McCanny is a member of Victoria College where he was a Northrop Frye Centre Undergraduate Fellow. McCanny is interested in questions about whether gross domestic product (GDP) is a good measure of economic and societal success, and what type of government spending improves the lives of citizens.

Anthony McCanny pointing at at wall screen with his research
Anthony McCanny presents his research into government spending and individual well-being during the SUDS Research Day.

McCanny is working with Felix Cheung, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. Cheung studies the determinants and consequences of subjective well-being across diverse populations — including the question of whether economic growth translates into personal happiness.

“During SUDS, Anthony and I will study an age-old question: whether money buys happiness,” says Cheung. “We examine this question at a policy level by testing how governments can allocate their expenditures to best benefit citizens' well-being.

“Anthony is using a cutting-edge method to test this long-standing research question with the largest dataset on global happiness. The results hold promise to inform governmental expenditure, an extremely timely topic as many countries around the world are reprioritizing their spending given recent events such as the invasion of Ukraine.”

“The SUDS program has filled my summer with an unbelievable amount of learning, fun, joy and community,” says McCanny. “I’ve been very lucky in Professor Cheung’s lab to have the freedom to conduct my own research, paired with great guidance. It’s hard not to feel like this summer has redefined my path in life, filling me with enthusiasm for a career in research, and connecting me with people that I hope I get to keep working with.”