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Humanizing Data Science: Loyola University Chicago

Daniel P. Smith

When Nicholas Soulakis was appointed director of Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Health Outcomes and Informatics Research (CHOIR) in October 2022, he knew he wanted to host a lively event to champion data science among both University stakeholders as well as prospective Chicago area collaborators.

Eight months later, CHOIR and Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health hosted Salon 2023: Data Science for Social Thinkers at MATTER, a healthcare incubator located in downtown Chicago. Loyola faculty, staff, and students and community partners packed the day-long event last June, a gathering carefully designed to promote informatics and data-driven research in an accessible way.

“For us, having a room full of data scientists was a great success, but having a room full of people with no exposure to data science and informatics was even better,” Soulakis says.

Now, Soulakis and CHOIR are aiming for an even better repeat performance with Salon 2024 on May 16.

‘Telling the truth’

Returning to MATTER, an ideal meeting spot given its centralized location and, even more, the innovative energy bubbling throughout its Merchandise Mart headquarters, Salon 2024 looks to empower data-driven decision-making through first-person point of views, impactful narratives, and energized personal conversations.

“We want to create an opportunity for people to look inside, ask questions, and come out better,” Soulakis says.

While the overall Salon theme of Data Science for Social Thinkers endures, Soulakis says “the social part will change each year.” For 2024, the event’s social theme is “Money on My Mind,” prompting attendees to address a “third-rail issue” rarely addressed in public health and social services training. As leaders in public health and community services, however, Soulakis reminds us that finances loom large in decisions, which elevates the importance of data and informatics to help optimize results.

“If the Salon is about anything, it’s about telling the truth,” Soulakis says. “If you don’t have the dollars column in your dataset or you do have that column and you treat it just like any other column or even if it’s the only column in your dataset, then this event will deliver a broader understanding of the dynamics of the dollars in what you do.”

Salon 2024 will feature speakers who make data-driven decisions in their daily lives as well as those who specialize in data science work, such as new Parkinson faculty member Ifeoma Ozodiegwu, an epidemiologist who models malaria interventions for healthcare leaders in Nigeria. Other speakers include the CEO of an insurance company, the chief executive of a leading investment company in independent primary care, and the vice president of analytics for New York City’s public hospitals.

Accessibility, connections, and creativity

Ditching technical barriers and scholarly jargon, Salon speakers relay who they are, what they do, and how they make challenging decisions in their respective roles, including how data influences action. Thereafter, speakers participate in panel discussions or connect one-on-one with attendees to share additional insight.

“A speaker’s Salon talk is just the beginning,” Soulakis says. “Attendees and speakers can break into their own conversations and the idea is that the side conversation might prove more powerful than the scheduled talk on stage.”

And true to a salon’s Parisian roots in the 17th century, where discussion of political and social topics stood alongside artistic discourse and entertainment, Salon 2024 will embrace the arts-meets-science vibe to feed a creative mindset. The Salon’s mid-day spotlight session, for example, will feature a photojournalist’s efforts with user-generated content related to financial literacy and local musicians whose work describes the patchwork mosaic of economic realities Chicagoans face every day.

Salon leans heavily into Loyola’s strengths in areas like social justice, diversity, global health, and community engagement, the latter being a significant point of pride for Loyola, which was one of only 40 U.S. institutions in higher education to receive the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification earlier this year. In fact, Soulakis hopes Salon 2024 ignites collaborations between CHOIR, the Loyola community, and external partners to advance thoughtful action in communities near and far.

“We want to bring people together so that we can work on hard problems,” Soulakis says. “If six months down the road, we’re building upon conversations started at Salon and starting new projects, that’s an amazing win.”

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