Nobel Conference Student Discussions

Gustavus Student Discussions with Speakers

Tuesday, October 5 at 4:30-5:30 p.m.

For Gustavus students only.
Students are invited to join a Zoom small group discussions with speakers. 

Zoom links will be available on the conference livestream page.
Students must be logged in to the Gustavus website to see the Zoom links.

Join a discussion to ask questions such as: 
• How did they become interested in their field? 
• What was the path they took to be the researchers they have become? 
• What are the questions they still haven’t been able to answer in their research? 
• What are the particular challenges they have faced in achieving their success?

Discussion #1 - Wendy Chun and Talithia Williams

Discussion led by Gustavus students: Linnea Coltvet, Lily Cuccia, Anna Teurman, Beamlake Hailu, Simerjit Kaur, Alexis Fleming and Gustavus faculty: Colleen Stockmann and Jillian Downey

Wendy Chun
Of particular interest to:
students interested in systems design thinking, in communication studies, in political science, in philosophy, in any theoretical study aimed at asking “did the internet have to be put together this way?” 

  • Chun has the quintessential multidisciplinary education: a bachelor’s degree in systems design engineering and a PhD in English literature.
  • She now heads a really multidisciplinary research institute called the Digital Democracies Institution, that uses what might be called a “wicked problems” approach to questions like: how can we use the tools of data analysis to understand what people think authenticity looks like in social media postings?
  • Chun is the author of several books that explore the very foundations on which new media, the internet, and big data analytics are grounded. Among the concepts those works challenge: homophily, the notion that “birds of a feather flock together.”
  • Chun traces this concept back to its origins in social science, where it was presented not as a fact of the matter, but as one way that people might group themselves. She asks, what if, instead, we organized around the principle “opposites attract?” 

Talithia Williams
Of particular interest to
: MCS students, and students interested in increasing the number of people of color in STEM

  • A statistician and data scientist, Williams is most well known for her interest in communicating concepts in data science in ways that can be understood by non-specialists.
  • She’s a host of Nova Wonders, and has a popular TED talk.
  • Williams, a professor at Harvey Mudd, the STEM college with a liberal arts curriculum, is also well versed in doing student faculty research; she has worked with students on a statistics project for WHO on cataracts in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a great illustration of taking advantage of a research opportunity that arises because of a series of fortunate events, and parlaying that opportunity into further opportunities for students.
  • Williams also lectures, writes and organizes workshops to increase the number of women and BIPOC students who study STEM disciplines.
  • She uses her own experience to inform and inspire students and their teachers.
  • Williams has written a book for a mainstream audience about women in mathematics, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics


Discussion #2 - Francesca Dominici and Rhema Vaithianathan

Discussion led by Gustavus students: Abbie Doran, Ha Le, Sophia Nelson, Brenda De Rosas Lazaro, Jaida Larson, Delaney Bluhm and Gustavus faculty: Melissa Lynn and Kate Knutson

Francesca Dominici
Of particular interest to students in: MCS, public health, political science, environmental studies

  • Dominici is a biostatistician who has been much in the news in the past several years, first for a landmark study of the relationship between air pollution and human health that used massive datasets that combined millions of Medicare records with records from NOA and the EPA.
    • The report of this research came out during the Trump administration, which criticized its findings: that reducing fine particle pollution by even an incremental amount could reduce deaths by tens of thousands per year.
  • More recently, she’s been in the newspapers for two studies linking air pollution and forest fires to higher incidences of COVID-19 deaths.
    • The first of those was released prior to peer review; the story of why she decided to do so and what happened as a result is, in and of itself, an interesting case study for science students.
  • Dominici’s own story of becoming a Harvard biostatistician and one of the most cited scientists for the year 2019, is pretty awe inspiring; she was the first--and remains the only--member of her extended family from a small Italian town to attend university. The movie title would be “persistence in the face of considerable obstacles.” 

Rhema Vaithianathan
Of particular interest to students in:
political science, sociology, psychology, nursing, education, or anyone interested in questions of child welfare

  • Vaithianathan, a health economist, is most well known for being the lead researcher on a project to create a “predictive risk model” that can be used by frontline child welfare workers to help in the process of screening reports of child abuse and neglect.
    • The tool has been used in several jurisdictions in the United States.
    • It has also been the subject of some pretty fierce criticism by people worried that the tool might simply reinscribe the racism that threads through existing child welfare systems.
  • Vaithianathan and her team argue that the tool can do the exact opposite--it can reduce the number of African American families wrongly investigated--while also increasing the investigation of white families (who tend to be under investigated).
  • Because such work is fraught with ethical challenges, Vaithianathan has much to say about the way in which they structure their research--including their commitment to transparency in their research, and what transparency means. 

Discussion #3 - Pilar Ossorio and Cynthia Rudin

Discussion led by Gustavus students: Neel Raut, Maria Sylvester, Elizabeth Tribbett, Josie Bierbaum, Ana Zaalishvili, Filip Belik and Gustavus faculty: Phil Voight and Jessie Petricka

Pilar Ossorio
Of particular interest to students in: philosophy, political science, sociology and anthropology, law, and any pre-health major.

  • Ossorio’s work is broadly concerned with uncovering the ways in which big data can be used to either perpetuate or ameliorate pernicious social inequalities.
  • She is particularly focused on uncovering populations that may be under-represented in big data sets and that may, therefore, receive inadequate medical or diagnostic advice.
  • Most recently, she has turned her attention to regulatory questions, including means to ensure the safety, transparency and efficacy of healthcare policy.
  • She has served on numerous professional advisory panels and working groups, including work with the Mayo Clinic and with the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Finally, Ossorio has extensive experience as a practicing scientist, but she is also a lawyer and bioethicist. As such, she approaches problems from multiple points of view. She has also been featured in a PBS Documentary entitled RACE: The Power of an Illusion.

Cynthia Rudin
Of particular interest to students in:
computer science, statistics, mathematics

  • Rudin has published several widely-cited pieces arguing for what she calls “interpretable models”--models that users can understand on their face. 
  • She contrasts these with “black box models” that are either proprietary (thus secret) or so complex that they cannot be understood by those who must use them.
  • Rudin and her students famously submitted an entry to a contest called the “Explainable Machine Learning Contest,” that asks contestants to build a complicated black box model and then give a good explanation for it. Instead, their team submitted a fully interpretable model that was as reliable as the black box models.