Data science for a better world

Master's student Dwight Sablan wants to use data science to combat climate change, helping communities near the equator, like Guam, where he grew up.

Growing up in Guam, Dwight Sablan was all too aware of the impact of climate change on his community.

Rising ocean temperatures and acidity were bleaching coral reefs, damaging marine ecosystems and leaving little protection from storms. The changing climate will continue to impact fishing, the availability of freshwater, and the health of crops on the island.

Sablan has kept this in mind as he’s moved to Seattle and begun his master’s degree in Data Science at the University of Washington. He sees the positive impact data science can have on transforming the world, and wants to use what he learns to help bring global emissions to zero.

This work is critical for communities near the equator, like in Guam, that are feeling the effects of climate change first and much more severely than those in places producing the majority of the emissions.

“All of these things have bleeding effects on the culture and traditions that make Guam so rich and beautiful,” Sablan said. “Regardless of the progress that we make in health care or education or other technology, climate change will continue to be a pressing issue until we get our emissions to zero.”

Sablan swimming with fish and friends on Guam at Fisheye.

Just as important to Sablan as using data science to combat climate change is opening doors for underrepresented groups in STEM careers.

Sablan, who is of Chamorro, Filipino, and Japanese descent, knows the weight of imposter syndrome that can come in graduate school, especially for underrepresented students in academia.

Sablan feels he has to work twice as hard because he fears his education is not as good as his peers who grew up in the contiguous United States. He works two part-time jobs at the University of Guam as a math adjunct and in cancer research in addition to his full time studies at UW. He also has great expectations for himself, as the only student from Guam in his classes.

He almost didn’t apply to UW after seeing how competitive the acceptance rate was. But Sablan has found that fighting imposter syndrome requires reminding himself and his peers that they not only deserve to be in academia, but are needed.

“In terms of advice for people who might be underrepresented, whether that’s ethnic or sexual minorities, that should be more of a reason why you should be in this program, to increase the diversity and uplift those who come after you and share your experiences with them so we can continue to increase diversity and representation in these STEM fields,” Sablan said.

Sablan and his childhood friends taking graduation pictures at an outlook near the University of Guam where they earned their undergraduate degrees.

Pacific Islander ethnic groups are some of the least represented in STEM fields, yet live in communities that will be most impacted by climate change. Sablan wants whatever work he does to bring their voices to climate change research as well as other science fields.

“Increasing representation and diversity in these fields is important because it builds a higher sense of self-efficacy in you, growing up on these islands,” Sablan said.

Seeing representation in his classes as an undergraduate at the University of Guam was incredibly powerful for his journey in math. Several of Sablan’s math professors were not only Chamorro, but had attended the same public high school as Sablan. Seeing how far they’d come in their math careers motivates Sablan in his studies.

While Sablan has long been interested in math and problem solving, he remembers a computer science course in his undergraduate studies in Guam that inspired his curiosity in this topic. After his professor brought up data science, Sablan wanted to learn more, so he went out and bought the book, Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. 

The book showed how big data could predict and inform lives, such as in the case of a woman whose purchase history of nutritional supplements and unscented lotion at Target predicted she might be pregnant. Using this data, Target mailed the woman coupons for baby products, before her family even knew of the pregnancy.

Sablan stands with his fellow undergraduate researchers from IUPUI at the 2019 IEEE Big Data Conference.

When it comes to climate change, data science can be used for analyzing and improving renewable energy sources, like wind turbines or solar panels. Sifting through data on battery life spans could help scientists understand how to build a long-lasting battery.

Sablan envisions many possible career fields in addition to sustainability and climate change, where this predictive science could have a positive impact on communities. Being able to explore an endless amount of careers through the lens of data science is something that excites Sablan about the program.

“You have all these tools, techniques, and education in data science, but you’re not limited to solving problems in an isolated discipline,” he said. “People are using data to induce meaningful change in the world.”


By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published June 29, 2021