John Spinosa ’80 wanted to try a new approach.
Before he arrived at the San Diego Blood Bank in the summer of 2017, Spinosa had co-founded a biotech company. Now, as the pathologist and chief medical officer began digging into the blood bank’s fundamental challenge—how to meet the constant demand for multiple varieties of blood from a supply dependent on a largely unpredictable pool of volunteer donors— he turned to one of an entrepreneur’s favorite tools: data.
“I looked at things in a new way for them, thinking about problems as I had at the start-up,” Spinosa said.
The SDBB had been gathering information about donors and donations for about a decade, with spreadsheets listing donors’ ages, hometowns, blood types, and the like. But putting that data to use was another issue. Spinosa knew that machine learning— applying algorithms and computational models to the trove— could uncover patterns that would help the organization operate more efficiently.
He brought it up at a staff meeting. The response was enthusiastic, but then came the inevitable question: How can we afford to hire someone to do it?
“I said, well, I know a college,” Spinosa joked.
He pitched the idea to Emily Wiley, associate dean of the faculty and professor of biology at CMC. They’d met about a decade ago, when Spinosa had arranged a talk on genomics at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, and stayed in touch. Wiley was helping to develop CMC’s new data science sequence, which included a capstone project for students, and thought Spinosa’s proposal might be a great fit. Her hunch was spot on.
“This project illustrated to us that we can bring together students from different majors to work together collaboratively and productively.”
– Emily Wiley
That conversation evolved into an interdisciplinary team of students conducting a data science pilot project last spring. Under the guidance of Wiley and Jeho Park, visiting assistant professor and director of the Murty Sunak Quantitative and Computing Lab, the students mined the SDBB’s data for information that would help the nonprofit make the best use of its resources.
For Wiley, the pilot was an example of the interdisciplinary, collaborative learning that she has championed throughout her own career—and which is a distinctive strength of CMC. As scientific research increasingly stretches across traditional disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and physics, projects such as this—team-taught, gathering students with diverse interests and skills—are necessary preparation for students heading into careers in science and medicine. Further, proficiency in a broad array of quantitative skills is crucial for all students as technology continues to transform industry, business, and our daily lives.
“This project illustrated to us that we can bring together students from different majors to work together collaboratively and productively. We can break really big questions into smaller, solvable parts, divide up tasks, conduct research, analyze and poke holes in findings, and then present them—the whole scientific process,” said Wiley. “We are teaching students how to think like productive citizens.”