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We need more women in data science” - Interview with Francesca Dominici

We need more women in data science” - Interview with Francesca Dominici


Anyone who dreams of changing the world could achieve this ambition today through a career in data science. Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health and Co-Director of the same American university’s Data Science Initiative has conducted a pivotal study in which she reveals the hidden damage caused by certain atmospheric pollutants, calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to review permitted levels thereof. But the opportunities offered by data are enormous for Italy too, explains Dominici in the following interview with the Aspen Italia website team. Indeed, proper investment in technology could lead to significant results – in terms of health but also of financial savings – for a universal healthcare system like Italy’s. And to achieve this it is necessary to increase the number of women scientists.

Does biostatistics offer new prospects for health?
The number of aspects of everyday life that we can measure with data has increased exponentially in recent years. Thanks to this technological revolution, we are able to gather data on everything and everyone, sometimes even against the wishes of those directly concerned. This has also led to a change in the way those who work with data are perceived, whereas, in the past, it was difficult to conceive how a statistician might change the world. Today, data scientists are much more in vogue. Those who monitor and analyze huge amounts of data have a great opportunity to profoundly influence society. Take the case of health: we can measure all sources of pollutants and understand what effects they have on people, making concrete proposals for intervening and, for instance, reducing the exposure of certain categories of persons at risk.

What’s the state of play on this in Italy?
Italy, like other European countries, has a universal healthcare system, and this offers better possibilities for analyzing data than the American situation, where there is only universal health coverage for over-65s. What’s essential, however, is that there be a technology platform in place that can collect and make this data available. While it is true that a healthcare system with e-medical records can require significant investment, it is equally true that the impacts – both economic and in terms of general health – would be considerable. With effective data monitoring, detailed information on the incidence of diseases can be obtained, reducing the costs of periodic screening and only carrying it out when actually needed. Or the management of hospital admissions can be optimized, thereby avoiding patients being kept in too long or, conversely, being discharged too soon and then having to be re-hospitalized.

How are Italian universities placed in the field of  data science?
Italy has huge expertise in this area and its universities are definitely not lagging behind the world’s best academic institutions. I know universities in Padua, Florence, and Rome that are making very rapid progress. The challenge is to marshal the best talent with a mix of skills, ensuring data science interacts with those applied disciplines that routinely use data analysis: from medicine to economics, and right through to physics. Students and researchers educated in Italy are well-trained and also very flexible. In Italy, as elsewhere, the challenge is to eliminate the many barriers that still characterize academic culture. But it seems to me that there is already an important shift underway.

How much is data science helping to narrow the gender gap?
The situation is not changing fast enough and the data science field is still dominated by males. For that matter, I’m surrounded by men all the time. It is a problem for this discipline, as data science actually requires a combination of different skills. There’s not only coding, but also teamwork, as well as the key quality of emotional intelligence. Having more teams of women in this area would be of enormous help, but much work is still needed. For me, it was an important step when I became co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative. We have to make numbers cool for young girls too, so we need female role models. The up-and-coming generations must be able to look at data science and see that women working with data can help change the world.


Francesca Dominici is Professor of Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as Co-Director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative. Her research focuses on statistical methods for analyzing huge amounts of complex data in fields of major strategic importance, such as public health, climate change, and environmental protection. Having demonstrated an active involvement in various programs promoting diversity, in 2015 she received the “Florence Nightingale David” award for her contribution as a role model to women and for excellence in the field of statistical research.