Imagine ‘Speed Dating’ to Fund Research

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson

Before he even arrived on campus from New Zealand earlier this year, visiting associate professor Mark Wilson, mathematics and statistics, attended a five-day, intense “scientific matchmaking” experience sequestered in a Washington, D.C. hotel to brainstorm with about 60 others and compete for funding by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Harnessing the Data Revolution Ideas Lab” program, designed to spark “new modes of data-driven discovery.”

“None of us knew each other at all,” he recalls. “We met for the first time on a Monday morning and by Friday morning we had formed into groups, come up with an idea, written a pre-proposal and made a 10-minute presentation. We were basically sequestered, and ate all our meals together. On Thursday night I was up until 1 a.m. getting ready for the full proposal. We worked in shifts so we could get some sleep.”

The five-day workshop began with an invitation to participants to post research project ideas on post-it notes, which were then loosely lumped together in theme areas, the mathematician says. The week included some “shark tank type feedback,” he notes, “which was a very intense experience. I felt we had a good chance of being funded once we had formed a group and come up with a project, but it required an incredibly fast turnaround.”

“The ‘ideas lab’ concept is to approach big challenges in interdisciplinary problems for ‘high risk, high impact’ grant pre-proposals,” Wilson adds. “I had a track record, as a mathematics and statistical contributor, of working with some social scientists, and I was looking for new collaborations. It’s rewarding. You have to be curious and flexible and many researchers are not, but I’ve found that I enjoy it.”

The event was planned by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and NSF program officers and led by professional facilitators, Wilson says. “They take you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “It was unique and very worthwhile experience. I recommend that anyone who has a chance to participate in an Ideas Lab in the future should be open-minded about new research directions. If you get the chance, you should take it, but be sure to get plenty of sleep before you go.”

Wilson’s participation was successful: he is now part of a team that includes a neuroscientist from Harvard, a sociologist/criminologist from the University of Albany, a machine learning researcher from Stony Brook University, a chemical engineer from the University of Minnesota and a computational social scientist from the University of Chicago. They were awarded a two-year, $1.8 million grant to study the links between individual human brain structure and group behavior.

NSF says its vision for the “Ideas Lab” is to “amplify the intrinsically multidisciplinary nature of the emerging field of data science.”