A Life Dedicated to Data: Raymond Ng’s Transformative Leadership Where Passion Meets Progress

Raymond Ng
Raymond Ng, Director, UBC Data Science Institute

Data-driven innovation is shifting landscapes in every sector and Raymond Ng is at the forefront of this holding the baton of academic excellence and real-world impact. Being a veteran professor of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, Raymond is not just an educator—he’s a visionary. His journey is as illustrious as his career, spanning continents and disciplines, culminating in his pivotal role as the Director of the Data Science Institute (DSI) established in 2017 within UBC’s Faculty of Science.

Raymond’s tale is one of relentless dedication and expertise. Having earned his stripes with a BSc. (Hons.) degree in Computer Science from UBC, he continued his academic journey, obtaining an M. Math degree from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park. His expertise extends across diverse realms, from data mining to health informatics, sensor analytics and text mining. For the past decade, he’s delved into the intricacies of genomics data and text data, pioneering groundbreaking research at the intersection of technology and human conversation.

Now, as the Director of the UBC Data Science Institute, Raymond’s leadership acumen shines. The DSI is a hub of innovation—a space where interdisciplinary research teams converge and data scientists are nurtured. It’s more than an initiative; it’s Raymond’s vision that shapes the institute. Through the DSI, he opens doors for partners, enabling them to access UBC’s unparalleled expertise while also facilitating research and development.

Let’s delve into a story that is not just about academic accolades but more about fostering collaborations, shaping futures and leveraging the power of data for the greater good!

Data Dreams and Leadership Realities

Raymond shares his remarkable journey with an unwavering passion for unraveling the mysteries hidden within data. He reminisces, “I am always fascinated by different types of data and how to analyze the data.” His curiosity led him from structured numeric data to the complexities of unstructured imaging, video and eventually genomics data and free form text data as well, where he delved into 25 years of groundbreaking biomedical research, securing millions in research funding. Despite his high school-level biology background, Raymond’s dedication has shaped transformative genomics projects.

Two decades ago, he embraced the role of Chief Informatics Officer in a non-profit organization combating organ failures. “I was practicing data science and leading data science teams even before the term ‘data science’ became well-known,” he states. A decade later, he returned to the university around the clock, armed with vast experience.

At that pivotal moment, he was tasked to create a data science institute. Raymond’s leadership shines through as he guides others, leveraging his expertise to apply data science across diverse domains. Raymond’s story is an example to the power of relentless curiosity and the impact of transformative leadership in the world of data science.

Crunching Numbers, Building Futures

At the heart of the Faculty of Science lies the Data Science Institute (DSI), an inspiration of innovation and collaboration under Raymond’s insightful guidance. “The DSI is designed to incubate and accelerate research, innovation and training in data-intensive science,” he emphasizes. With a fervent dedication to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, the DSI pioneers the way forward in data science research, addressing intricate challenges in health, science and the arts.

Raymond’s vision materializes as the DSI becomes a thriving hub, uniting faculties and breaking down academic silos. “The DSI provides a collaboration hub to enable inter-faculty interactions on research problems involving large and complex data sets,” he elaborates. Here, diverse minds converge, sparking creative solutions to multifaceted issues. Not just confined within university walls, the DSI opens its doors to external organizations, offering them access to UBC’s rich pool of expertise in complex data analysis and modeling.

Bridging Silos, Breaking Barriers

In the realm of interdisciplinary research, leadership finds its true essence through Raymond’s innovative approach. “Interdisciplinary principal investigators need ‘bridging’ persons to help glue the team,” he emphasizes, highlighting the challenges in merging diverse fields. Over 5 years ago, Raymond initiated a groundbreaking endeavor—the post-doctoral matching fund program, a great example of collaboration. Postdoctoral fellows, already skilled researchers, become the linchpins, guiding teams through uncharted territories.

Through this program, interdisciplinary teams receive vital funding to bring these fellows aboard, allowing them to explore uncharted territories for 12-18 months. Raymond’s philosophy echoes: “If the pilot fails, fine, we tried and we move on.” This fearless experimentation fosters learning, steering teams towards refined, sustainable projects. The program’s success resonates in its ability to cultivate robust interdisciplinary collaborations, facilitating funding in the realm of data science.

Beyond financial support, this initiative pioneers capacity building, shaping the next generation of researchers. In the intersection of data science and vital application domains, postdoctoral fellows thrive under Raymond’s guidance. His leadership, exemplified through this program, not only bridges disciplines but also nurtures the leaders of tomorrow, illustrating the transformative power of collaborative endeavors.

The Palette of Possibilities

Raymond’s leadership shines through in the Postdoctoral Matching Fund Program, where innovation knows no bounds. “We are sponsoring projects in diverse domains,” he enthuses, underscoring the program’s vast impact. In healthcare and biomedical research, the initiative delves into monumental tasks, from intricate cancer modeling at single-cell resolution to pioneering treatments for conditions like COPD and kidney transplantation.

At the intersection of science and engineering, the program pioneers breakthroughs, from developing robust genome analysis platforms to understanding mining’s impact on ecosystems. The initiative’s reach even extends into the arts and social sciences, where it explores the complexities of developmental psychology and revolutionizes online education through adaptive support systems.

These endeavors, as Raymond states, are just the tip of the iceberg. The program’s website is a treasure trove, showcasing a plethora of projects shaping the future. Through Raymond’s guidance, the program doesn’t merely fund research—it fosters a spirit of exploration and collaboration, inspiring leaders across disciplines to innovate, collaborate and shape a better tomorrow.

Creating Data Dynamos

In a bold stride toward global collaboration, Raymond has unveiled a groundbreaking initiative, proclaiming, “We launched a unique international postdoctoral exchange program.” Partnering with the National University of Singapore’s Data Science Institute, this program transcends borders, offering postdoctoral fellows an enriching two-year journey across cities.

This visionary exchange program emphasizes more than technical prowess—it celebrates the diversity of experiences. Postdoctoral fellows spend a year in one city and another in a different city, broadening their horizons. The beauty lies in the flexibility—projects need not align perfectly. Raymond envisions this model as a bridge between nations, fostering international partnerships. He adds, “This model could work well to engage other international partners and enhance the exchange of postdoctoral fellows between different regions.”

With eyes set on the future, plans are afoot to extend this venture. Raymond envisions collaborations with esteemed institutes like the Berlin Einstein Centre for Digital Future in Germany and others in the US. This initiative not only transforms postdoctoral training but also embodies a spirit of global unity under Raymond’s visionary leadership.

From Digits to Discoveries

Raymond is committed to innovation and nurturing the next generation of leaders shaping the future of data science. “Our postdoctoral matching fund program fuels groundbreaking projects,” he asserts. Notably, Dr. J.S. Legare’s genomic platform, born from this initiative, unraveled sunflower ecotypic differences, leading to a Nature publication in 2020—a testament to the program’s impact.

Within the DSI, data scientists are not merely contributors—they are architects of change. An exemplary collaboration with the BC Cancer Registry illustrates this power. Facing a backlog dilemma, the DSI team, alongside registry experts, pioneered Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools. Raymond explains, “We co-designed state-of-the-art NLP tools using Large Language Models.” This innovative approach ensures accurate identification of reportable cancers, outshining existing tools.

Crucially, the DSI team emphasizes human understanding, intertwining technology with expertise. Raymond notes, “We crafted a flowchart mirroring the human tumor registrar’s classification process.” This fusion of AI precision and human insight births a tool trusted by experts, amplifying its impact.

This success story, showcased in a pilot project, echoes across ongoing endeavors, funded by stalwarts like the BC Provincial Health Services Authority and the Ministry of Health. The DSI, under Raymond’s stewardship, not only transforms cancer research but also paves the way for a future where data science transcends boundaries, making impactful strides in healthcare.

Wisdom, Data and Dreams

In the whirlwind of the swiftly evolving data science landscape, Raymond leads the charge with a clear vision. “Learning from the literature is critical,” he emphasizes, anchoring his team’s approach in continuous education. To stay ahead, they convene in regular journal clubs and research days, delving into the latest findings, ensuring their knowledge remains razor-sharp.

Yet, it’s not just internal learning that propels their success. Raymond believes in the power of connections. “We connect with a broad group of potential collaborators,” he states, highlighting the importance of reaching out. By understanding the unique challenges faced by others, they pave the way for collaborative triumphs. “We identify ‘win-win’ collaboration opportunities to work together,” he explains, fostering partnerships that benefit everyone involved.

This approach, a harmonious blend of self-improvement and collaborative spirit epitomizes Raymond’s leadership style. It’s not just about keeping up—it’s about leading the change. In a world where knowledge is power, Raymond ensures his team not only keeps pace with the fast-changing field but surges ahead, armed with insights, connections and a shared commitment to conquering the challenges of data science.

Diverse Minds, Common Goals

Navigating the rapid currents of change, Raymond leads with a proactive approach. “Apart from asking everybody involved to be updated about the literature,” he notes, stressing the importance of continuous learning.

The UBC DSI actively collaborates, notably with the Academic Data Science Alliance, a US-based network. “It’s crucial to learn from and with each other,” Raymond affirms. In this bustling field, collaboration is the cornerstone of leadership. Through shared knowledge and partnerships, Raymond ensures his team not only adapts to change but thrives in it, setting a dynamic example for all.

The Data Dilemma

Raymond reflects on the challenges of our time. “The hype surrounding AI, ChatGPT, NLP, Machine learning, and so on, it’s causing misunderstandings,” he acknowledges. Amidst this hype, he discerns a critical juncture. Some organizations fear the unknown, missing out on invaluable prospects.

Others, driven by haste, wield these technologies irresponsibly. Raymond’s insight illuminates the path forward—a balanced, ethical approach. His leadership calls for careful navigation, ensuring that amidst the buzz, opportunities prevail while risks are meticulously mitigated.

Numbers Speak Louder

Focusing on healthcare, Raymond’s leadership shines brightly, illuminating a path toward innovation and compassion. “NLP can be applied successfully to pathology reports,” he asserts, acknowledging the transformative potential of technology. But his vision extends far beyond clinical documents—it encompasses the holistic well-being of patients.

Raymond’s team is pioneering a groundbreaking project, spanning over 20 years of clinical reports to predict cancer relapse as their commitment to patient care. Yet, they don’t stop at clinical documents—they delve into the world of user-generated content. Patients, families and caregivers create a big pool of information. “How do they feel? What information do they need?” Raymond asks, recognizing the importance of understanding patients on a personal level.

This empathetic approach extends to triaging callers seeking emergency care. Raymond’s team is developing tools to guide individuals, bridging the gap between home care and crowded emergency rooms. “An effective triaging system is critical,” he emphasizes, aware of the immense impact on patients’ lives.

However, Raymond recognizes the gravity of this endeavor. “Beyond technologies, there are ethical, cultural and societal implications,” he acknowledges. It’s not just about innovation—it’s about responsible, inclusive leadership. Raymond champions collaboration and co-designing solutions that resonate with all stakeholders.

From Theory to Practice

Raymond’s leadership stands out in the intricate world of data science, focusing not just on innovation but also on sustainable impact. “We develop tools, build models and generate insights,” he emphasizes, highlighting their multifaceted approach. Beyond the realm of typical knowledge transfer, creating a unique combination of support which ensures tools find a lasting home in organizations.

Take the BC Cancer Registry partnership, for instance. Raymond’s team doesn’t just deliver tools—they nurture integration. “We provide advice on embedding new tools,” he explains. It’s about more than technology—it’s about empowering organizations. In a remarkable turn, a DSI data scientist became an integral part of the registry exemplifying the importance of building human capacity.

Raymond’s philosophy echoes: “Building human capacity is almost as important as building tools.” His leadership is bridging the gap between technology and its human impact. By not only creating innovations but also fostering the skills and knowledge to sustain them, Raymond ensures that their work doesn’t just stay in the lab—it becomes a catalyst for enduring change, enriching organizations and lives.

The Guiding Stars

Raymond’s wisdom transcends technicalities delving deep into ethics and responsibility. “Our training equips them with skills that have potentially powerful implications,” he emphasizes, recognizing the magnitude of their knowledge. As a leader, he imparts a crucial lesson—ethical consciousness. Just like teaching someone to drive a powerful car, he guides them to operate their skills responsibly.

His analogy resonates: “I teach them how to drive a useful and powerful car.” Raymond instills the significance of public safety, urging his students not to metaphorically ‘drink and drive’ in the data world. This ethical compass threads through their education, shaping them not just as skilled professionals but as responsible stewards of knowledge.

Raymond’s vision manifests vividly in the DSI’s acclaimed program, ‘Data Science for Social Good.’ It’s about harnessing their skills for societal benefit. Under his guidance, students learn not just to navigate the data landscape but also to do so with integrity, ensuring their knowledge is a force for good, making the world a better place, one responsible data scientist at a time.