From happiness to health care, undergraduate summer program inspires future data scientists

Victoria College's Anthony McCanny is exploring whether gross domestic product (GDP) is a good measure of economic and societal success as part of a Data Sciences Institute summer research program (photo courtesy of the Data Sciences Institute)

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

These were among the questions studied during the 2022 Summer Undergraduate Data Science (SUDS) Research Program run by the University of Toronto’s hub for data science research: the Data Sciences Institute (DSI), based in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

The program pairs faculty members with undergraduate students 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, the institute’s 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 and 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 projects tackled in the program reflects the growing number of disciplines that are increasingly reliant on data skills and expertise. Three projects involving Faculty of Arts & Science faculty members and students addressed questions in psychology, Earth sciences and the intersection of machine learning and health care.

Students presented their research during the SUDS Research Day in August (photo courtesy of the Data Sciences Institute)

What causes ice ages to end?

Innis College student 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 was taken up in glaciers. This exposed the continental shelf, triggering a chemical reaction that released large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 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.

 “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.” 

Wortmann praised the program.

“The SUDS program is fantastic – 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,” he said. 

Can machine learning help make medical decisions?

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 and pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Krishnan’s research exists at the intersection of machine learning and health care. Among his lab’s projects: redesigning patient risk scores, which are metrics used in hospitals to predict aspects of a patient’s care and inform clinical decisions such as who should receive 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. Introducing students to research early is an important step for them to see the opportunities that graduate study can provide."

Wang, similarily, says he has reaped significant rewards from the program.

“Thanks to SUDS, I’m learning how to combine machine learning algorithms in the health-care 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?

Anthony McCanny, a member of Victoria College where he was a Northrop Frye Centre Undergraduate Fellow, is interested in 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.

He is working with Felix Cheung, an assistant professor in the department of psychology who 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.”

McCanny, for his part, says the program brought “learning, fun, joy and community” to his summer.

“I’ve been very lucky in Professor Cheung’s lab to have the freedom to conduct my own research, paired with great guidance,” he says. “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.”

Arts & Science