David Uminsky

Executive Director, Data Science Institute at the University of Chicago
University of Chicago


David was born on Edwards AFB, CA, where his dad served in the Air Force. His mom is from Guatemala and emigrated to the states when she was 16. David’s family moved and he grew up in Bakersfield, CA. Originally wanting to make films, then interested in physics, David did not take a straight path to mathematics. He transferred from University of Pennsylvania and returned to Cal State Bakersfield before graduating from Harvey Mudd College in Mathematics in 2003. David first understood what it meant to have a career in mathematics when he attended SIMU, an NSF REU program at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao and fell in love with research. David went on to earn his Ph.D. in Math at Boston University in 2009 and then joined UCLA as a combined NSF and UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for outstanding postdoctoral research.

When David welcomed his first born daughter, Nayeli, into the world it was time to get a real job. David accepted an assistant professor role at the University of San Francisco where he founded the third bachelor’s degree in Data Science in the country and later served as the Director of the MS in Data Science program from 2014-2019. David was selected in 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences as a Kavli Frontiers of Science fellow for his research in applied mathematics. David is most proud of being selected, during the summer of 2018, to serve as the Director of Research for the Mathematical Science Research Institute Undergrad Program on the topic of Mathematical Data Science. This service completed a lifelong goal of leading an REU program to inspire the next generation of diverse young students into the mathematical sciences, an experience he credits with leading him to math. David was tenured and promoted to associate professor in 2015 and soon after co-founded the Data Institute @ USF. He joined the University of Chicago in September 2020 as a senior research associate and Executive Director of the Data Science Institute. David lives in Hyde Park in Chicago, IL with his wife Lindsay and two daughters and can be found on warm summer evenings at the park coaching his girl’s little league teams.

David’s research interests have evolved significantly over his career but he views this evolution as a feature and not a bug. What ultimately continues to drive his interest in research is the endless effort of trying to figure out the “why” in any research question. He began in earnest in the field of complex dynamics, driven at trying to understand fractals and the dynamical system properties that yield different mathematical properties. In his second year of graduate school, he took a partial differential equations course and switched to studying Navier Stokes equations. He developed a new approach to understanding how vortices (e.g. hurricanes, eddys) interact and evolve for is Ph.D. thesis. During his postdoc at UCLA, he pursued a long research program studying how agents, swarms, and particles communicate with each other and how those rules of communication allow for the formation of coherent super structures (fish mills, nano-self assembly). 

While trained as a mathematician, David has one foot firmly planted in Data Science. David first got interested in what is now called Data Science in 2010 while at UCLA, where he was exposed to more talks in the area of imaging and mathematical aspects of using data. While nescient, this exposure fundamentally changed David’s research, teaching, and career interests. Seeing the fascinating way mathematics could be used to unlock methods of analyzing data and answer interesting applied problems felt like an extraordinary opportunity both in research and bringing a new generation of diverse students into the field of mathematical sciences, a critical career goal of his. He has spent the past decade developing this new field of Data Science. His current research is now firmly in mathematical data science, machine learning and applications, data science research, and more recently, on the societal impacts of Data. As executive director of the new Data Science Institute (DSI) at UChicago, David is charged with leading the effort of defining the field of Data Science. In doing so, he spends most of his time in administrative leadership efforts to build the DSI’s programming that focuses on research, new educational degrees, and outreach. It is a principle goal of the DSI to build an inclusive and diverse community of data science researchers, students, and community members.

David has focused on broadening participation and access in the mathematical sciences throughout his career. The UChicago DSI has been an outstanding platform for outreach that strengthens its research and education mission. David is most proud of two recent outreach efforts. The first is the formation of a new data science partnership between UChicago and the city colleges of Chicago (CCC). This partnership is centered on the principles of mutual benefit and includes standing up a new model of a DS preceptorship who will teach at both UChicago and CCC. The DS Preceptorship builds capacity at both institutions to develop new and inclusive educational opportunities for students. The second outreach effort, in partnership with data.org, stands up a network of HBCU, HSI and MSI institutions to develop scalable data science social impact experiential learning modules. This effort is aimed to immediately impact the network as well as produce a playbook for all higher education institutions to equitably engage these learning modules.

David can credit much of his success to a few consistent themes. He advises students, “Seek out supportive mentors. Most of having a successful research or academic career is not written down in a book or a blog and there is much knowledge that is only found by asking people. By building a network of trusted mentors, I was able to consult with them on the big steps I took in my career. Find people that you trust to give you advice.” Second, he tells students, “Stay curious and open to new opportunities. If you find yourself somewhere in this world of mathematics now, you are likely somewhat of a curious person. Let that curiosity drive you, whether it's in new or deeper lines of research questions, teaching opportunities or careers in industry. Most decisions you make generally will involve considerable work afterward and it's much more satisfying if you are interested in what you are working on.” Finally, and according to David, perhaps most importantly, “Failure is a friend and teacher. Whether it’s a rabbit hole of research or career decisions, failure has been much more instructive than any of my successes. If you are feeling stuck or feeling like you have made a mistake, then you might just have figured out something important.”

“HHM began in my lifetime and has been an important way to bring to the forefront the critical contribution to society of our people. Despite our best efforts, Latinx representation in the mathematical sciences has been largely flat over the last 30 years. HHM, and efforts like Lathism are a meaningful way to see our community reflected in our field and I’m humbled to be a part of it.”