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UW–Madison announces its fourth round of cluster hires

May 5, 2020 By Käri Knutson and Eric Hamilton

Artificial intelligence, ethics in technology, the origins of life, astrophysical data — these exciting but complex subjects are the focus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s fourth round of cluster hires, the Office of the Provost announced today.

The hires, which are made as a group across departments rather than individually within departments, build upon the university’s existing strengths. They foster collaborative research, education and outreach by creating new interdisciplinary areas of knowledge.

UW–Madison first launched the Cluster Hiring Initiative in 1998 as an innovative partnership between the university, state and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. In its first phase, the initiative authorized nearly 50 clusters, adding nearly 150 new faculty members through several rounds of hiring. In 2017, the Office of the Provost authorized phase two of the initiative, with a goal of supporting at least 12 clusters.

Previous clusters were announced in April 2019 and September and February of 2018. This latest round brings the total of clusters supported to 19. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, each cluster will be given at least two years to complete its hiring plans. New cluster competition will be suspended for at least the next academic year.

The latest cluster hires are:

Artificial Intelligence in Precision Medical Imaging and Diagnostics

Proposal advanced by: Thomas Grist, professor of radiology, medical physics and biomedical engineering; Kristin Eschenfelder, associate director of the School of Computing, Data and Information Sciences; Rob Nowak, professor of electrical and computer engineering, computer sciences, statistics and biomedical engineering; Vallabh Sambamurthy, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.

Through new approaches to data acquisition and analysis, advances in artificial intelligence are poised to revolutionize the way in which medical imaging affects clinical care and scientific discoveries in medicine. This cluster outlines three key faculty positions that will be foundational to an expansion of UW–Madison’s leadership in the field. It will also address urgent opportunities for curriculum development in areas of interest to multiple colleges and schools on campus and extramural entities.

Next-generation medical imaging uses AI techniques to improve its diagnostic accuracy and predictive power, enabling advances in basic understanding of human disease, treatment monitoring and long-term surveillance of disease.

Collaborations like those forged by the cluster hire will contribute to the realization of the full potential of AI for precision medical imaging and diagnostics.

Ethics in Computing, Data, and Information

Proposal advanced by: Alan Rubel, professor in the Information School and director of the Center for Law, Society and Justice; Michael Titelbaum, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy; Loris D’Antoni, professor of computer sciences; Aws Albarghouthi, professor of computer sciences; Noah Weeth Feinstein, director of the Holtz Center for Science, Technology and Society and a professor of curriculum and instruction and community and environmental sociology.

Computational systems, data analytics, artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision systems affect large and important facets of society, including governance, education, commerce, democracy and media. These tools can be used to advance social goods, but they can also go awry, used for bad purposes by bad actors. The tools can also reflect and engender unfair social structures.

To effectively address ethical issues in AI, data, and information systems requires collaboration between scholars working on computational systems, on the social facets of information technologies, and on conceptual and moral questions about how such systems function and how they are used.

UW–Madison is well-positioned to be a world leader in these areas because of its current strengths and existing collaborations. The cluster proposes hiring three faculty members working on distinct facets of the ethics of computing, data and information.

Exploring the Origins of Life Across the Galaxy

Proposal advanced by: Sebastian Heinz, professor and chair of astronomy; David Baum, professor of botany; Judith Burstyn, professor and chair of chemistry; Greg Tripoli, professor and chair of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; Jeff Hardin, professor and chair of integrative biology; Ken Cameron, professor and chair of botany; Chuck DeMets, professor and chair of geoscience; Annie Bauer, assistant professor of geoscience; Tristan L’Ecuyer, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; Robert Mathieu, professor of astronomy; Steve Meyers, professor of geoscience; Phillip Newmark, professor of integrative biology; Andrew Vanderburg, assistant professor of astronomy; Susanna Widicus Weaver, professor of chemistry; John Yin, professor of chemical and biological engineering; Tehshik Yoon, professor of chemistry; Ke Zhang, assistant professor of astronomy.

Questions about the origins and nature of life are as old as humanity itself. Today, the search for understanding the origin of life extends to the cosmos, as recent work has uncovered countless planets orbiting stars throughout the Milky Way, each potentially bearing life of its own. But how do we detect life on planets we can never visit? And how do we know how common life might be if we don’t know how it arose on Earth?

The search for evidence of life on other planets is by nature interdisciplinary. Chemistry, biology and geoscience combine to understand how life arose on our planet and how it might have done so on other worlds, while astronomy and atmospheric sciences can probe for evidence of that life from light-years away. This cluster will allow the hiring of researchers who straddle these fields and who can bridge the gaps between expertise across the participating departments. The group will also establish the Wisconsin Center for Origins Research to house new and existing faculty and encourage new collaborations in astrobiology.

Breakthrough Science with Multi-messenger Astrophysical Data

Proposal advanced by: Albrecht Karle, professor of physics; Keith Bechtol, assistant professor of physics; Francis Halzen, professor of physics; Kael Hanson, professor of physics; Sebastian Heinz, professor and chair of astronomy; Sebastian Raschka, assistant professor of statistics; Justin Vandenbroucke, associate professor of physics; Jun Zhu, professor and chair of statistics; Ellen Zweibel, professor of astronomy.

For millennia, humans learned about the night sky only from the light from distant stars. But recently, astrophysicists have gained access to signals that go beyond light. These messengers about the universe include gravitational waves and neutrinos — ghostly particles that rarely interact with other matter. UW–Madison is the headquarters of the world’s largest neutrino observatory, IceCube, which surveys a billion tons of Antarctic ice for signs of rare neutrino collisions.

Now, the IceCube project is preparing for a major upgrade to generation two. This cluster hire will invest in the astronomy, physics and statistics faculty necessary to continue and expand UW–Madison’s leadership in multi-messenger astrophysics. This data-heavy field requires collaborations between these three fields to probe the constant stream of information recorded by IceCube and to find the sources of the neutrinos that stream toward Earth. That analysis can help answer fundamental questions about the physical laws governing the universe and help us understand complex phenomena like black holes and cosmic rays.