The University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative capped off its first year of existence Monday with a keynote for its summer undergraduate program.
The two-month program, mostly for third- and fourth-year UVa students, offered 16 undergraduates the chance to work in a research lab and investigate cutting-edge questions of computer science, engineering and data science.
“A lot of the things that I have spent my life studying, the first time I was really introduced to them and got addicted to them was when I was 20,” said Chris Barrett, executive director of the UVa institute. “For us to be in this ecosystem efficiently and effectively, we have to do this.”
Barrett offered a keynote speech to celebrate the end of the Computing for Global Challenges program. He outlined his interest in understanding the relationships that determine big systems — whether a virus, a political system or a computer-generated program — and the importance of being critical about those systems’ impact on our lives.
Systems have become an expansion of individual humans, Barrett said, and some systems are so sophisticated that they can learn from each other and interact independent of human input. Most humans aren’t trained to pay much attention to the computer program that decides the route you can drive during rush hour, or the automated stockbroker that buys and sells shares — until everyone’s car detours at the same time or the stock market takes a nosedive. Those events aren’t bugs in the programming, Barrett argued, but symptoms of a programmer who did not consider the ethics surrounding authority, privacy and human agency.
“You can’t get away with saying, ‘I’m just an engineer, I don’t know how authority is distributed,’” Barrett said. “You have to have a political opinion about who controls your system, because you are inevitably designing its authority.”
UVa announced the Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative last August with a statement about Barrett’s hire away from Virginia Tech, where he had led that school’s Biocomplexity Institute. Barrett brought 27 faculty and $27 million in research funding with him to Charlottesville, and received a $30 million startup package from UVa, according to The Roanoke Times. In April, Tech’s institute announced its closure.
The UVa project, housed at the UVa Research Park in Albemarle County and at a campus in Fairfax, does not teach any regular academic classes. Full-time researchers are looking at how to use machine learning to keep dangerous diseases out of terrorists’ hands and how public health data can map human resiliency after natural disasters, among other issues.
But, while researchers may not be in the classroom every day, Barrett said he intends to make the institute an integral part of the university.
“UVa’s overwhelming strength is not as a major research university, like MIT or Harvard — yet — but in the professional schools and undergraduate schools,” Barrett said. “The strongest move, in this town, in this way, is to deal with the professional schools and the undergraduate programs.”
Undergraduates may not have had much specific training in particular programs and concepts yet, researchers said at Monday’s symposium, but all research depends on a new way of understanding and a fresh reason to learn.
“The reason to have a summer program like this is that for many undergraduates, this is their first exposure to research,” said Samarth Swarup, a research associate professor who studies network systems, “so it’s important to make that a really good experience with them, because we’re training the next generation of researchers.”
Plenty of research has been done in individual fields of public health, political science and computer science, said Madhav Marathe, a Tech transplant and division director of the UVa institute’s network systems science and advanced computing division. But that work is often siloed within disciplines — the institute aims to study the systems as a whole.
Marathe said it’s an open question of how to determine ethical questions of these big systems. It’s important to expose students to the fundamental questions now, so that as they grow up to be leaders, they will be prepared to shape their fields for the better.
“I really hope that 10 years from now, one or more students look back and say, ‘this was a turning point for me, and really changed the path I was going to take,’” Marathe said.