UC Berkeley faculty discuss data science, computing in response to COVID-19

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UC Berkeley faculty members from various disciplines participated in a virtual roundtable discussion Tuesday to discuss the current state of research on COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus.

Berkeley Institute for Data Science Director Saul Perlmutter and UC Berkeley School of Public Health Dean Michael Lu moderated the discussion, which was co-hosted by the two institutions. Speakers discussed topics including vaccine development, election voting logistics and supply and demand imbalance, focusing on how computing and data science can improve related research projects and aid the global response to the pandemic.

“(Data science) is now becoming a shared language that people are using to address these problems together,” Perlmutter said during the discussion. “I’m optimistic that that will help a little bit during this period as people are at least having that in common.”

Associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics Maya Petersen discussed her efforts to guide local government health departments in using available data to decide future steps in the COVID-19 response.

Petersen said the data available to make these decisions is “imperfect” because of factors such as limited testing, so her group has been working with more widely available data, such as the number of COVID-19 patients in a hospital on a day-to-day basis.

Professor and chair of the Department of Statistics Sandrine Dudoit also discussed the importance of reliable data.

“When lives are at stake, as is the case now, data quality is more crucial than ever to avoid garbage in, garbage out,” Dudoit said during the discussion. “We want to make sure that the results are driven by good data.”

Many biomedical researchers have refocused their research efforts on COVID-19, according to Michael Eisen, professor of genetics, genomics and development. Eisen discussed a recent study involving data science that showed that the virus is evolving relatively slowly. Biomedical researchers developing vaccines to combat the disease now know that these vaccines could still be effective later on.

Another consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is the need to adjust voting and voter registration methods for the upcoming elections. Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and professor of political science and public policy Henry Brady said data science could be important in keeping track of documents and organizing information.

Multiple speakers discussed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in problem-solving. As associate dean for research in the Division of Computing, Data Science and Society, Katherine Yelick hopes to connect researchers across the campus and broader research community.

“It’s been a whirlwind over the last few weeks to try to help people find collaborators,” Yelick said during the discussion. “(Interdisciplinary science) is a contact sport, I mean you have to get deeply involved with people from other disciplines, whether it’s mathematics, statistics or computer science together with biologists and together with epidemiologists and so on to really understand what the actual problems are.”

Emma Rooholfada is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.