With so many questions still surrounding COVID-19, there is one certainty: Pandemic-related research is here to stay.
And Zhang should know. As the institute's first data scientist, he will manage multiple clinical research projects that use data from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to search for clues about long-term outcomes and improved treatment methods for COVID-19.
The position was created after Kennedy Institute Executive Director Angela Wilkins organized a virtual workshop for Rice faculty to meet representatives of MD Anderson's Data-Driven Determinants for COVID-19 Oncology Discovery (D3CODE) effort, which collects and aggregates data into a single resource for COVID-19 research.
"We saw lots of conversations happening, but a couple of things I kept hearing from the faculty were, 'It's really hard to just move somebody onto a project,' and, 'It's really hard to work out the data situation across institutions,'" Wilkins said.
It was mid-summer and the pandemic was raging. Wilkins had been on the job just a few weeks, but she understood the problem all too well. She'd spent nine years on the research faculty at Baylor College of Medicine, directed clinical research at a nonprofit and helmed her own data science startup before joining Rice.
"You can't just make a grad student magically appear," Wilkins said. "It's challenging to divert resources in academic research, but at the same time, because of the urgency of COVID, we needed the ability to get things done quickly."
With support from Rice's COVID-19 Research Fund and Data Science Initiative, the Kennedy Institute created a position for a trained expert who could get research projects moving immediately and serve as a single point of contact for both Rice and MD Anderson collaborators regarding Rice's access to D3CODE data. Wilkins said the first Rice D3CODE projects will be chosen soon based on a call for proposals from Rice faculty that ends in March. A primary goal is to support projects that could lead to long-term research collaborations between Rice and MD Anderson.
"Faculty who would like to work on D3CODE — there are 40 different projects in consideration right now — can submit, and we will choose the projects Anton is going to work on," Wilkins said.
Zhang earned his Ph.D. in Boris Yakobson's research group in the Department of Materials Science and Nanoengineering and spent the past four years working on data processing and model building in the oil and gas sector.
He said it's an honor to be "working on the front line of COVID," and he's eager to partner with top minds from Rice and MD Anderson.
"Industry focus is different from academia," Zhang said. "I definitely learned a lot of useful skills, as well as the framework of thinking. And I believe my industry experience brings me a unique advantage for starting this new position."
Wilkins said she'd like to connect with more Rice faculty and let them know about changes at the Kennedy Institute. During the pandemic, connecting hasn't been easy. The only person she's met in person is institute director Lydia Kavraki.
"I want people to know the Ken Kennedy Institute is doing things differently, and we're bringing in new ideas," Wilkins said. She said she'd like to win external support to expand the institute's data science research program as a way of establishing long-term interinstitutional collaborations.
"I would like to have a team of people who do this," she said. "And not just for collaborations with the Texas Medical Center. I just got off the phone with Saint Louis University. They're doing interesting research around geospatial tagging and agriculture. I'd like to see this connect us to institutions and organizations all over the world.
"The Ken Kennedy Institute has a vital role to play in enabling Rice to be at the forefront of the AI and data revolution," she said.
Faculty interested in submitting a D3CODE proposal may email firstname.lastname@example.org.