New institute to add quantitative skills across disciplines

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | April 4, 2012

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QuanTM's mission is to promote the teaching, learning and use of quantitative theory and methods.

In a quiet corner of the campus, a bit of scholarly revolution is taking shape.

The new Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods (QuanTM) has begun laying the groundwork to strengthen Emory as a community of quantitative scholars, unfolding plans to offer new statistics courses, undergraduate fellowships, workshops, a statistics help desk, a speakers series, and by next summer, a major conference.

It's all part of a larger vision to build stronger quantitative scholars and enhance interdisciplinary studies at the University, boosting its reputation on the national stage as a center for excellence in computational modeling and statistics, says Clifford Carrubba, director of QuanTM (pronounced "quantum").

Located on the first floor of the Modern Languages Building, the institute offices are now sparsely appointed — a move to larger quarters is expected this summer. But the recently launched QuanTM website reflects decided momentum.

Emory undergraduates can now register for a new "Introduction to Statistical Inference" course to be offered college-wide this fall by newly hired faculty member Shannon McClintock, a recent Emory PhD graduate in biostatistics.

Students are also being considered for undergraduate research fellowships in quantitative methods, to be paired with Emory professors doing research in an area of shared interest. Calls have gone out for visiting scholars and future plans may even include offering a new major in the field.

Building a community of quantitative researchers

The developments are the result of a major initiative endorsed by Emory College Dean Robin Forman, who is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics. Forman traces the origins of the idea to a common refrain he heard time and again when he arrived on campus some 18 months ago: Help our students develop quantitative skills.

The dean agreed, and began considering ways to transform the educational experience for undergraduates, graduate students and faculty alike, promoting the growth of quantitative studies across both the natural and social sciences.

"Over the last decade, many more disciplines have become much more quantitative, far more data intensive than they ever have been," says Forman, who sees the institute as an investment in the future.

"It's become an essential competency," he adds. "I think that we need to be a home for thoughtful leaders — among our students, alumni and faculty — who are skilled at accessing and assessing data, and interpreting what they're seeing."

By strengthening undergraduate skills, Emory students will be better prepared for graduate studies, as well as today's competitive job market, where competency in statistical analysis pays off, notes Carrubba, a political science professor who also directs Emory's Center for the Study of Law, Politics and Economics.

"The business world, journalism, economics — all sorts of disciplines are increasingly flush with many forms of data," Carrubba says. "Students emerging with these skills will be in high demand."

Adds Forman, "Although this is not driving the project, it is reassuring to read reports that one of the largest growth areas in employment opportunities is in quantitative data analysis."

A new view of liberal arts

Although quantitative research hasn't traditionally been considered a major facet of a liberal arts education, both educators believe it's time to rethink that. In fact, Forman says there is a growing interest in the role of computational, quantitative techniques within the humanities, "to explore ideas and understand the dynamics that are shaping the culture."

For example, Carrubba cites advances in the digital humanities movement and computational linguistics, which allow scholars to identify literary characteristics — such as sentiment or mood — and write computer programs to study that aspect in hundreds of thousands of books.

"I can imagine having undergraduate humanities majors, social and natural scientists in the same class using the same skill set for very different purposes — an English major may be using the same skills that a biologist uses," Carrubba observes.

"Moving forward, I think it's integral to what a liberal arts education needs to take seriously," he adds.

The institute will build upon pockets of existing talent, Forman says, such as a strong Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, which specializes in the study of databases, and the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics in the Rollins School of Public Health, which provides quantitative answers to complicated questions arising from complex data.

"They are very natural partners," Forman says. "This idea of understanding how to make data our ally is something that has been a distinctive strength."

So far, the push for change has been well received. Carrubba has met with representatives from disciplines that include biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, economics and the humanities. "I was very happy with the response, a sense of enthusiasm," he recalls.

"The need is there," Carrubba adds. "There needs to be a bit of a revolution in undergraduate education, a skill set that students need to learn. And it starts here. Hopefully, we're creating a model that will be adapted throughout the country."