Bill Nye Comes to Campus as ‘The Data Science Guy’
Bill Nye, as everyone knows, is The Science Guy—a self-described science nerd with a bow tie whose PBS television show in the late 1990s inspired a generation of millennials to study math and consider careers as scientists and engineers.
So what was this TV celebrity doing on campus last Friday as star-struck science and engineering students lined up to gush and take selfies with him?
Nye came to campus as The Data Science Guy to honor a friend, UC San Diego computer science alumnus and lecturer Taner Halıcıoğlu, ’96, whose $75 million gift to the university last spring made possible the campus’ new Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute.
“I am delighted to say that Taner considers himself both a geek and a nerd,” said Nye, to laughter at the institute’s dedication ceremony, held at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. “What more could an alma mater hope for? He’s my kind of guy!”
An early Facebook employee who joined the social media company in 2004 when it had only 15 computer servers and 250,000 users, Halıcıoğlu later worked at eBay and Blizzard Entertainment, and is now a private investor as well as a lecturer in UC San Diego’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
While he was working with the more than 90 startup local companies in which he invested in recent years, Halıcıoğlu told the gathering that he realized that one of the main obstacles to their growth was making sense of large volumes of data.
“They either didn’t quite understand what they needed to do regarding collecting data and analyzing data or they were able to collect data and didn’t know how to analyze it,” he said. “Or some of them just couldn’t find the data scientists to do this work for them.”
The institute was partly a response to that problem, he said, and the recognition that an institute that would involve researchers and educators across the campus would energize UC San Diego and maintain its global leadership at a time when every single field of scholarship is being revolutionized by data.
“One of the things I’m most excited about is that we’re going to have a lot of students who will be really helping to shape this field,” said Halıcıoğlu. “Data science hasn’t really become an actual discipline until recently and I’m really excited that we’re going to be on the forefront of that.”
Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said educating and mentoring students at UC San Diego was what drew Halıcıoğlu back to campus, where he teaches an undergraduate class every quarter in computer operations and production engineering.
“Quite frankly,” said Halıcıoğlu about his return to his alma mater, “the main reason is that I was rather inspired by some of my teachers while I was here. I thought to myself I’ve been doing computer operations stuff for the last 20 years and that’s not something that’s even taught at a four-year university anywhere, much less UC San Diego. So I felt it was almost my duty to impart some of this knowledge to the next generation.”
Khosla said the students Halıcıoğlu mentors not only love and adore him for his passion and commitment to their education, but also appreciate that he’s always accessible in his usually casual attire of cargo shorts and T-shirt at the Price Center’s Round Table Pizza franchise.
“I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that he has single-handedly kept that place in business,” Khosla, said to laughter. “If you want to meet Taner, you meet him at Round Table Pizza. You have no choice. Not my office, not his office. Just Round Table Pizza. That’s it. He has TA meetings there, papers get graded there, all sorts of good stuff happens there.”
“Each of us can remember a teacher or a professor that had a profound influence on us,” added Nye, who is now the CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization based in Pasadena that promotes the exploration of space. “And I imagine catching a lucky break and getting a professor we really wanted to do well for.”
With the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, Nye added, “Taner is apparently bent on providing great teachers and lucky breaks to a great many University of California San Diego students.”
Peter Lee, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft for Artificial Intelligence and Research, said that what’s unique about UC San Diego’s institute, and what distinguishes it from other data science programs launched recently by other research universities, is its breadth across all disciplines and fields of scholarly inquiry.
“There is perhaps no other intellectual endeavor today that is more important than the advancement of data science,” said Lee, adding that scientists now live in an age “in which data is so magnificently large and so varied that it defies human comprehension. So data science becomes not just a nice thing to have for scientific discovery but becomes necessary if we want any chance to advance those fields.”
“What is so brilliant about the institute is that it goes beyond that. It extends to economics, social sciences, the humanities and even the arts. It’s impressive that even, for example, work in English rhetoric is now doing data analytics. It is a new path to discovery.”
Chancellor Khosla said UC San Diego’s leadership in computer science, information technology, artificial intelligence and deep learning, through which computers are learning to make sense of large amounts of data, makes the campus the logical place to launch an institute that will change the world through data science.
“If data science is going to become the discipline of the future, the only logical place that can make this happen is UC San Diego,” he said. “So my hope, my view, is this investment, this commitment, this vision that Taner has brought here will allow us to not just do greater and better research, but to change the world around us.”