NASHVILLE, TN – Dr. Fortune Mhlanga is a computational science educator and the founding dean of the new School of Applied Computational Sciences at Meharry Medical College.
He wants to turn Meharry’s program in data science into a top-notch training ground for data scientists and researchers to rival Harvard and John Hopkins, two national leaders in medical research.
“Our academic programming is not in medicine. It is in computational sciences which lies at the intersection of mathematics, computer science, and core disciplines of science and engineering,” Mhlanga said.
He said the programs include a Master of Science in general data science and a Master of Science in biomedical data science. The biomedical data science degree has concentration tracks in precision medicine informatics and population health informatics.
He said those degrees require understanding of statistical analyses and decision modeling, computer programming, and data management. “Those are the three key ingredients for a data science degree,” Mhlanga said.
He established the College of Computing and Technology at Lipscomb University and developed similar programs at Faulkner University and the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre in Zimbabwe.
“You are, so to speak, a number cruncher who understands statistical analysis and decision modeling. And you must understand how to sample and analyze data, and from those analyses be able to develop predictive algorithms. That is what data science is all about,” he said.
The new school is accepting applications for the fall 2021 semester. A doctoral degree in biomedical data science will become available in the fall of 2022.
Meharry established a Data Science Institute in fall 2018 with a focus on medical, social, and environmental issues that impact the health of minority and underserved people.
Computational scientists can mine data that helps policy-makers design better public health programs. Mhlanga said healthcare institutions are making better decisions by knowing how to use computational science to improve health outcomes for their patients.
Mhlanga said along with computational science his students would also do a bit of physics, biology, chemistry, general education, sociology, and psychology. In short, Meharry’s computer scientists will be generalists with a particular set of math skills.
“Today as a computer science graduate I can work for an organization like Walmart, for example, developing a point of sales system… but tomorrow I may leave that job and work for a physicist developing weather forecasting algorithms, and then tomorrow I’m working for a neuroscientist, …working in a different arena altogether doing biomedical data science.
We are trained to understand requirements and adopt those requirements to a particular setting as we talk to subject area experts and develop the application that will fit those areas.”
Mhlanga said his school would enhance the scholarship and research portfolio of principal investigators and researchers in Meharry’s other three schools. He has hired four new faculty members and poached two others from Meharry’s current faculty. He plans to hire six more faculty members before August 2021.
He wants to foster collaborations between researchers at Meharry’s other schools. For example, he wants one of his computer scientists to partner with an expert in genetic sequencing or someone else who is doing cancer research.
“Now you combine that faculty from my school with the faculty member who has been doing genetic research and you get applications and scholarship output that is equivalent to what we get at John Hopkins and Harvard. This is why we are here as a school,” he said.
Mhlanga is off to a pretty good start even before school starts in the fall. “We have 10 grant submissions to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on minority communities. We are also supporting a collaboration with Blackhorn Business Group which is focused on artificial intelligence,” he said.
Mhlanga said the school has already purchased a super computer. “This will allow us to analyze large complex problems and prepare Meharry students for jobs at organizations like Oakridge National laboratory.”
“We are doing all that by way of research and you can only imagine how the capabilities in research will inform and strengthen our teaching and also build a better student out of our program.”