Collaboration boosts data science field

Gift from American Family Insurance will help expand research

UW student Skylyn Worzalla speaks with William Karpus, dean of the graduate school, at an info session during the University of Wisconsin-Madison and American Family Insurance Partnership Celebration Event. Bryce Richter

A generous gift from American Family Insurance today coupled with a planned expansion of its research collaboration will spearhead the growth of UW–Madison’s research in data science, supporting work that could push forward studies in fields as different as artificial intelligence, genetics, drug development, material science and business. The emerging field of data science has its roots in computer science and statistics and is catalyzing unprecedented growth in the global economy.

American Family Insurance is announcing today that it will invest $20 million in UW data science initiatives, including $10 million in research over the next 10 years — through 2029 — and establish a $10 million endowment to create the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute on campus.

“American Family Insurance is a proud partner and supporter of UW–Madison,” said Jack Salzwedel, American Family Insurance chair and CEO. “This latest partnership recognizes the importance of using data science to help our customers, by providing insights on the challenges they face and how best to take action to meet them. The Institute will also develop a pipeline of potential future employees in the data science field, as well as provide valuable learning opportunities for our current employees.”

The institute will be located in the McArdle Building and Brian Yandell, professor of biometry, statistics and horticulture, will be the interim director. It will bring together the data science community at UW–Madison and foster new industry partnerships in a rapidly evolving area. The institute will likely increase philanthropic interests in data science applied to domains across UW–Madison, and could also serve as a magnet to attract new faculty.

“Creating the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute will bring faculty together from across campus to collaborate on cutting-edge research, spark new opportunities for our students, and give us new ways to work with industry partners,” said Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “It will advance discoveries in sectors vital to the Wisconsin economy and make sure our university remains a leader in this important area of research.”

Today’s program, held at the Discovery Building on the UW–Madison campus, announcing American Family Insurance’s gift includes a partnership showcase featuring initiatives and research advanced through the partnership agreement announced in 2015. The showcase includes several current American Family Insurance-UW–Madison research projects in data science and also highlights collaborative community-based projects including UW Odyssey, IT Academy, the UniverCity Alliance and student outreach projects.

Establishing the institute builds on UW–Madison’s previous initiatives in data science, including formation of a Data Science Hub at WID, creation of a data science major that will attract close to 1,000 undergraduates over the next five years, and the work of the Institute for Foundations of Data Science, an interdisciplinary research effort supported by the National Science Foundation. New research associated with AFIDSI and IFDS will yield breakthroughs in many areas, ranging from precision agriculture to autonomous vehicles to the comprehensive study of world literature.

“Like many other academic institutions, we are grappling with how to address the challenges of a rapidly evolving data landscape,” explains Norman Drinkwater, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “Given the strength of our faculty in both fundamental and applied data science, we are in a good position to develop an interdisciplinary institute focused on data science and we are grateful to American Family Insurance for their continuing partnership in this research area.”

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