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How can we leverage data science to make the world a better place? This is the question Statistics Professor Emerita Jessica Utts is pushing aspiring data scientists to consider. Through an endowment of $115,000 to the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), Utts has funded a new scholarship in her parents’ name that will provide an annual $5,000 scholarship for an undergraduate data science major. The Richard and Patricia Utts Data Science for Social Good Award will require applicants to write an essay in which they propose a new idea for how data science can be used for social good.

“The technical aspects of data science have gotten ahead of the human aspects,” explains Utts. “It’s easy to make rapid advances in technology, but it’s hard to change human thinking and behavior.” This is why data scientists need to be thinking about the impact of their work. For example, hiring algorithms that rely on past data generated by humans can perpetuate certain biases, and algorithms used to decide whether to fund a loan can incorporate averages that don’t account for individual circumstances — such as the average default rate for the applicant’s zip code. “The use of algorithms without human intervention as a final step can lead to discriminatory or even dangerous outcomes,” says Utts.

Raised by parents who “cared very much about social causes,” Utts hopes to encourage students to be more than just “technically savvy.” As a child, she remembers marching for civil rights alongside her father, a journalist, and mother, a social worker also active in efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. “My mother was an excellent problem-solver and my father was very good at thinking outside the box,” she says. “I think if they were still alive, we would have some stimulating brain-storming sessions about how data science could be used for social good!”

Jessica Utts (far right) with her parents and siblings.

The endowment is also a token of her appreciation. “I am deeply grateful to the UCI Department of Statistics and the School of ICS for providing me with an intellectual home for the last decade of my career,” says Utts. As chair of the Department of Statistics from 2011-2016, she helped launch the data science major in 2015 — the first of its kind in the UC system. “Much of my career has been devoted to helping people understand the importance of statistics, and more recently data science, and to showing how they can benefit society.” To help ensure future success for the program, she decided that “supporting a data science major who had thought about how her or his work could benefit society was a contribution that I would be pleased to leave as a legacy.”

ICS will start accepting applications in January of 2020 and will award the first scholarship that spring. Visit the ICS Scholarships & Fellowships page for more information.

— Shani Murray