image title

The data scientist is in

ASU Library's data lab is open to all in ASU community.
Data Science Week runs Sept. 17-21.
September 13, 2018

ASU Library opens center for data science, research collaboration; check out the lab during Data Science Week open-house events

The popularity of data science has grown steadily over the last decade with the advent of big data and the much-buzzed-about analyses of Nate Silver. 

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review coined data science “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” This year, USA Today named it one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs in the U.S.

Leaders in the technology industry, from commerce to computing, are intently focused on getting as much knowledge from data as possible.

Now, the wrangling of data to uncover solutions, make predictions, formulate deeper questions and identify opportunities has found a home at the university library.

Michael Simeone, director of Data Science and Analytics at ASU Library, sees Arizona State University as an ideal ecosystem for the applications of data science and the library as a critical resource to support it.

The key, he says, is collaboration.

“Data science isn’t done in isolation. It’s inherently collective and interdisciplinary, which is why ASU is the perfect place for it,” said Simeone, an assistant research professor affiliated with the Biosocial Complexity Initiative, the Department of English, the Institute for Social Science Research, and the School of Sustainability. “My focus at the library is connecting researchers with information and with each other.”

Along with fellow data scientist David Little, Simeone aims to spread that message Sept. 17–21 as part of Data Science Week, a series of open-house events for students and faculty to gauge interest and raise awareness about the new library lab and the research and partnership opportunities it can foster.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Such partnerships include a project with ASU Facilities Management, in which a student-faculty team analyzed thousands of university facility requests over the past five years in order to establish a predictive model for estimating component failures in building climate-control systems.

Another collaboration with the School of Art, within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, led to the creation of an interactive model to visualize the geographical range of artists whose works were highly sought out in the trans-Atlantic art trade.

“We have ongoing and available projects for the community to get involved in, and we want students and researchers participating from a diversity of fields: art history, engineering, language and literature, biology, urban planning, economics and business,” Simeone said. “If you’re faculty, staff or student, we can look at opportunities to collaborate, gain project experience, or learn about what other researchers are doing at ASU and beyond.”

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, all are welcome in the data lab, a decidedly low-tech space that Simeone runs in the lower level of Hayden Library.

When entering the lab, you won’t find a sea of computers or a team of screen-focused programmers. (This isn’t the place where you drop off your messy data for a “geek” to clean.)

Instead, you’ll find whiteboards, a few purpose-built computers, and an open table with people exploring a problem and the various ways of engaging with it. 

“This isn’t a service desk,” Little said. “This is an open lab. We’re looking to help you find a collaborator or collaborate with you directly, and we’re interested in solving complex problems and working with meaningful data in our efforts to do that.”

Data scientists Michael Simeone and David Little

Data scientists Michael Simeone (left) and David Little in the Hayden Library data lab on Sept. 7. The lab is available for students who have projects, work or research that could benefit from data visualization and data analyzation and the expertise from data scientists. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Over the last year, Simeone has worked to ensure that the new lab space met key needs of the ASU community. Meeting regularly with students, faculty and staff interested in gaining experience with data visualization, machine learning and analytics programs, Simeone has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students on their own research, including a team from the W. P. Carey School of Business for a capstone project that involved text-mining emails for organizational analysis.

Simeone also teaches graduate-level courses in the computational and digital humanities certificate, which is run by the School for International Letters and Cultures.

Working with Simeone, ASU student Shashank Kapoor is specializing in big data systems as part of his graduate work in computer science, within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Referred to as “data engineering,” Kapoor’s work first requires significant data analysis in order to engineer software to perform a specific task.

“For example, if you are a bank, say you want to know all your customers who could be victims of identity theft,” Kapoor said. “We can run that data science job with the banking software. It is an overlap with data science. With data science skills, no matter what type of data you have — structured, unstructured or semi-structured — I can analyze it and give some meaningful output, and with data engineering skills, I can provide that useful output in the best fashion.”

The ASU Library lab will also launch a student data science working group this semester, in which students will meet weekly to explore problems, get exposed to using tools such as Python, a program used to gain insight from storing and manipulating data, and help one another think with data.

“The student working group is really key to having students learn best practices and get experience solving problems in a multidisciplinary, team-based environment,” Simeone said.

According to Simeone and Little, the potential for data science applications at ASU is high.

“The principles of data science align well with ASU’s core values: use-inspired research, knowledge fusion, collaboration and inclusion,” Simeone said. “Here, everyone wants to be part of building something. We’re helping them do that.”

Top photo: Data scientist Michael Simeone speaks about data visualization during an introduction to the Hayden Library data lab on Sept. 7. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist , ASU Library

image title

A new angle on cancer

Visit the crested cactus garden during Biodesign C's grand opening Monday.
Cactus garden connects research inside the Biodesign Institute with its outside.
September 13, 2018

Crested cactuses inspire researchers at ASU's Biodesign Institute to look for new ways to control, not eradicate, the disease

Sun Tzu, the general of ancient China, wrote in his enduring military treatise “The Art of War” of the importance of knowing one’s enemy. The idea resonates strongly with Athena Aktipis, a scholar of many titles at Arizona State University who studies cooperation among living things.

While Sun Tzu’s enemies were on the battlefield, Aktipis’ are in the body.

“As an organism, we’re cooperation incarnate — the embodiment of cellular cooperation,” she said. “But it’s not a perfect system. Sometimes cells do mutate and stop cooperating. And that can sometimes lead to cancer.”

Cancer has been a part of life on Earth since the beginning of multicellularity, yet it is a foe humankind continues to grapple with — at least in part because we still do not fully understand it.

AktipisAthena Aktipis is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and co-director of the Human Generosity Project, the first large-scale transdisciplinary project to investigate the interrelationship between biological and cultural influences on human generosity. and her husband, fellow ASU scholar Carlo MaleyCarlo Maley is an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and a biologist who specializes in cancer, evolution and computational biology. He will lead the new Arizona Cancer and Evolution Center, to be established at ASU thanks to an $8.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute., are making inroads toward a better understanding of the disease through more traditional scientific methods in their labs at the Biodesign Institute at ASU. But they’ve also conceived an unusual way to allow people to consider it anew.

Haunted by an idea 

About a decade ago, Aktipis was visiting Phoenix when she discovered crested cactuses, a phenomenon that results in some pretty wild-looking desert flora. Crested cactuses have a condition called fasciation, a mutation of their growth pattern that manifests in saguaros topped with bulbous, brain-like nodules and prickly pears that undulate like a flamenco skirt in motion.

Intrigued, Aktipis shared her newfound fascination with Maley, who studies cancer from an evolutionary standpoint.

“I remember telling Carlo, ‘There’s something here. There’s something really important and interesting that these cacti can tell us, but I don’t know what it is yet,’” Aktipis said.

Crested cactus garden

Crested cactus have a condition called fasciation, a mutation of their growth pattern that results in some wild-looking desert flora. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

The crested cactuses continued to haunt her until five years ago, when she and Maley were in Berlin with colleagues working on a paper about cancer across the tree of life, analyzing how the disease affects multicellular life — from humans to animals to plants.

Once again, Aktipis found herself musing on the mutated cactuses. At last, she felt she had begun to figure out what secrets they might have to divulge.

The plant’s disfigurement, Aktipis said, “lets you really see the kind of growth patterns that can result from these mutations in a way that you can’t see in an animal,” because humans’ stem cells are embedded all over the body, whereas plants’ stem cells are located at their growing tips.

What’s more, Maley said, “crested cacti are a beautiful example of how cancer can show up in plants but also be lived with” — in essence, making the cactus a fully embodied argument that “cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

Graphic of stem cell locations

During their time in Berlin, they met garden designer Caspian Robertson. The group batted around the idea of creating a garden, not only to showcase the plants’ peculiar charm but to drive discussion of how our society thinks about cancer.

Still, the timing just wasn’t quite right.

Finally, in 2014, Aktipis and Maley arrived at ASU, drawn to the university’s embrace of interdisciplinary research with a purpose. They found the environment — both intellectual and physical — to be just right.

‘Beautiful monsters’

Serendipitously, ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, a celebration of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century monster novel, was in full swing at the time. They jumped at the chance to submit their crested-cactus garden concept for inclusion.

“These cacti are beautiful monsters,” Aktipis said. “[They are] amazing, almost sculptural pieces of art. But at the same time they are mutated.”

With the help of Biodesign Scientific Research Curator Pamela Winfrey, they put together a proposal. Winfrey was initially hesitant to get involved because of traumatic memories of the cancer that killed her grandmother. But as the project gained momentum and more people signed on to help bring it to fruition, it became apparent just how many others had a personal connection to the disease, including Byron Sampson, ASU landscape architect on the project, who had a massive brain tumor removed just four years ago.

And then there was Aktipis; her mother passed away from cancer when she was just a teenager, having kept it a secret all the way up to her death.

Stories like hers, Aktipis said, are indicative of the need for a cultural shift in the way our society views cancer: as an insidious foe that must be blasted with powerful drugs, often at the expense of the patient’s overall health.

Instead of complete eradication, she and Maley are exploring ways of controlling the disease. They recently received a grant from the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre to begin clinical trials in breast cancer patients of a new type of treatment called adaptive therapy.

Adaptive therapy is a unique approach in which patients receive treatment only when tumors are growing. It is still a nascent practice but so far has shown promise in animal models and in a clinical trial of patients with prostate cancer.

Aktipis, whose namesake is the goddess of war, concedes that the technique seems to go against people’s intuitions about how to win a fight.

“But the rules of war don’t work the same in the body,” she said. (Interestingly, another nugget of wisdom Sun Tzu bestowed in his treatise was the advice to use force sparingly.) “Cancer cells can still grow back really rapidly in a way an army couldn’t ever do.”

A Pitchfunder campaign to support continued expansion of the garden launched Sept. 17.

The garden is located to the east of Biodesign buildings A and B on the Tempe campus, where Aktipis and Maley conduct their research. It will be on display during the Sept. 17 public unveiling of the new Biodesign C building, which will feature the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser, an innovative device that will allow researchers to peer deep into molecular structure to better understand — among other things — the cellular mechanics of diseases such as cancer. 

WATCH: Carlo Maley speaks on "Arizona Horizon" about the new Arizona Cancer and Evolution Center

Crested cactus garden

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

If you go

What: Grand opening of Biodesign C.

When: 9 a.m., with ceremonial speeches beginning at 9:30 a.m. The building will be open to the public for self-guided tours until 11:30 a.m.; there will be breakfast items at each stop.

Where: Southwest corner of University Drive and Rural Road, Tempe.

Top photo: A mutated prickly pear cactus outside the new Biodesign C building in Tempe features flamenco0-skirt-like pads. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
This story originally appeared in the fall issue of ASU Thrive magazine.