A new Yale initiative aims to bridge the disciplines of data science and neuroscience as the University builds toward a campuswide data science institute.

The three-year project, called Investigations at the Interface of Data Science and Neuroscience, will be funded by the National Science Foundation’s Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science + X program. Yale’s initiative is one of 19 partnerships supported by TRIPODS + X, which will provide a total of $8.5 million. At Yale, researchers plan to develop data science models to better understand computation in the brain, which can then be used to improve artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“We wanted to find opportunities where data science would lead to progress in neuroscience and at the same time, where our understanding of the brain could in turn be used to inform and improve computational models in data science,” said psychology professor Nicholas Turk-Browne, principal investigator on the project. “There’s a deep connection between these fields and I think that TRIPODS + X is an initial step to realizing some of these connections to advance both of these fields.”

In June, the University Science Strategy Committee released a report that presented five specific investment priorities to improve the sciences at Yale. Data science and neuroscience were among the priorities.

Turk-Browne said that the researchers are pleased that the project fits in with those two top priorities.

“The idea that we’re going to use this science strategy to break down barriers between traditional departmental or intellectual siloes is a powerful one, and I think it’s very forward-looking of the administration to take this approach,” said professor of mathematics Jeffrey Brock, co-principal investigator of the project.

The team has identified four specific areas to investigate: distributed processing, data representation, attentional filtering and memory capacity. The grant will also help fund activities that could eventually be housed under an interdisciplinary, campuswide data science institute, one of the report’s major suggestions.

“Part of the funding will be used to build a campus community in the areas of data science and neuroscience and their overlap,” Turk-Browne said. “This includes offering workshops in which we’ll discuss general and specific problems at the intersection of data science and neuroscience.”

Turk-Browne added that the grant also will enable student exchanges with Brown’s TRIPODS institute, allowing Yale neuroscience students to get immersive training in the mathematical and statistical foundations of data science.

The project will prioritize the training of undergraduate and graduate students, who can help bring together faculty in these two fields, Brock said.

Prior to establishing the TRIPODS + X program, the National Science Foundation created TRIPODS institutes, where scholars use computer science, mathematics and statistics together to define the mathematical foundations of data science, according to Brock, who will become the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences dean of science in January 2019.

When the foundation announced the expansion of TRIPODS in February 2018, Brock — who led one of the original TRIPODS institutes while he was at Brown — saw the program as an important way to connect the fields of data science and neuroscience and as a unique opportunity for Yale.

“Coming in as dean of science, I was pleased to have this award as an example of a way to think about science as occurring across departments in a really exciting way,” Brock said. “So, I hope that as dean, I can try to encourage other proposals of this nature that cut across data and biology, data and chemistry, and more.”

Although the project has a three-year timeline, the investigators anticipate a longer-term horizon for the National Science Foundation’s initiative. The program can foster long-term nationwide collaborations, said Brock, who envisions the creation of a “Northeast ecosystem” of data science and its applications with Yale at the center.

Turk-Browne added that the project serves as a vehicle for long-term progress at Yale in enhancing the connections between data science and neuroscience, which may include potential new courses and hirings.

“TRIPODS + X is exciting not only for its near-term impact addressing some of society’s most important scientific challenges, but because of its potential for developing tools for future applications,” said Anne Kinney, the foundation’s assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences.

Other co-principal investigators of the grant include statistics and data science professor John Lafferty and molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Damon Clark. Dean of Yale College and psychology professor Marvin Chun, as well as three collaborators from Brown University, will also be involved in the project.

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu