Earlier this month, IBM awarded its Watson Solutions Faculty Award to Notre Dame computer science professor Nitesh Chawla. The IBM award recognizes the work of faculty on the forefront of big data and analytics and applying that work to social problems as well as incorporating it into curriculum, according to a University press release. Chawla, who currently serves as director of both the Interdisciplinary Center of Network Science and Applications and the Data, Interference, Analytic and Learning Lab, was honored for his work with the research of big data and healthcare innovation to examine possible solutions for the future of the healthcare field. “Big data is becoming a cornerstone of the modern economy,” he said. “A lot of my research has been around data, data mining, machine learning, network science and applications, and so my Watson Faculty Award was a recognition of that work and a recognition of the curriculum.” Chawla created a multidisciplinary course at Notre Dame called Healthcare Analytics, which uses his research ideas in part as a basis for the curriculum and includes majors from multiple colleges, he said. “It may be one of the more multidisciplinary courses on campus,” Chawla said. “Students from each discipline then are focused on how we can think about data and healthcare, how data in healthcare can lead to more personalized healthcare, more cost-effective healthcare.” The South Bend healthcare community has been responsive to the research and the class, Chawla said, and many local leaders in the industry have worked with the class, including executives from Michiana Health Information Network and the chief information officer of Beacon Health System. Chawla said this kind of outside interest and involvement is important to the class as well as demonstrating why IBM was so interested in his work, especially with the creation of its new initiative, the artificial intelligence machine known as Watson. IBM popularized its Watson machine by pitting it against top human competitors on the television game show “Jeopardy!”, but its capabilities are much greater than that, Chawla said. “[The class] is sort of emblematic of the work that Watson is doing. The machine is a cognitive system which brings in data and information from a variety of sources, processes it and delivers it in a viable form,” Chawla said. “That’s what we are trying to create in the classroom environment, where you have people from different disciplines, different backgrounds, different expertise working on projects together and then delivering it in a way that would make a difference to healthcare.” The class is split up into several groups that work on semester-long projects with the goal of operating at the intersection of medicine and big data research, Chawla said. Project topics include studying patient scheduling issues, readmission rates and global health partnerships. Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com
Three days later, the NCAA Board of Directors announced that every athlete who chooses to opt out of the upcoming season will keep their scholarship, that athletes will not be required to sign coronavirus liability waivers and that schools will be required to cover athletes’ coronavirus-related medical expenses. But with questions endless and answers few and far between, the Trojan football team has been continuing to prepare for a season that might not be. “I think that made everyone have a renewed appreciation for the game and for each other,” Slovis said. “It’s a grind when you’re in spring ball and during the season, but when you kind of get it taken away from you, you really miss it. And I think a lot of guys came back missing just being with each other and having that opportunity.” “You take your mask off just for water,” Hufanga said July 21. “And then you put your water back down — it’s like, they have officials over there watching and making sure we’re on top of everything … So when they’re taking these types of precautions, I don’t feel nervous or scared being there.” Hufanga mirrored that sentiment, praising not only the department’s providing of masks and hand sanitizer but also its awareness of the mental toll the crisis can have on the student-athletes. But what does preparation look like in this aberration that is 2020? It remains to be seen whether the players and the conference will reach an agreement. By the time this article was sent to press Sunday, there had been no further developments. Hufanga added that the USC campus, typically buzzing at this time of year with student-athletes attending in-person summer classes, feels like a “ghost town.” “For me personally and as a team, we just have to kind of have the idea that we’re going to play when they say we can,” sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis said. “And whenever we get called to play, we gotta be ready.” According to Sports Illustrated, Commissioner Larry Scott wrote a response to the players Aug. 3 stating that he and the conference would discuss their letter “over the next couple of days” before following up. “We all have our concerns … At any point, I feel like our season could be in jeopardy,” Slovis said. “I trust our administration and our medical staff to kind of take care of that. But there’s just so much we don’t know about this virus … Who knows? Maybe there’s a vaccine soon. We’ll see.” McKenzie, Slovis and Hufanga said the Athletic Department has been effectively enforcing the myriad protocols put in place to prevent a coronavirus outbreak as student-athletes return to campus. But the nature of college sports and campuses makes it essentially impossible to create a completely centralized and isolated bubble similar to those of the NBA in Orlando or the NHL in Edmonton and Toronto as they resume their seasons. “Essentially, in this frame of time, we’re essential workers. That’s how we’re being treated right now,” McKenzie said July 22. “So, we’re as comfortable as all the other essential workers who have to go back to work [at] this time. So, it’s definitely not like we’re just out there carefree, like nobody’s thinking about it.” The initial announcement of the phased return plan came four days after the Trojans’ rival just down the I-405 experienced its own difficulties in returning to campus amid the pandemic. According to the Los Angeles Times, 30 UCLA football players met virtually June 18 to create a document requesting third-party oversight outside of UCLA’s athletic department to ensure that coronavirus-related protocol is followed during all football activities. While Slovis didn’t mention UCLA, he said he was pleased with how the Trojans’ return has gone so far. Eerie — that may be the most accurate term to describe campus these days, along with “ghost town.” The upcoming season could be described with many others: irregular, unpredictable, fragile, hypothetical. “I think they’ve done a great job, especially at USC,” Slovis said. “And I can’t speak for other schools — I’ve heard rumors of things that probably haven’t been done as efficiently. But here, I think we’ve done a great job … Things have kind of come together seamlessly. You know, I think I’ve been here for four weeks now, and it’s been a pretty easy adjustment after the first few days.” Oh, and masks. Masks throughout. Redshirt junior offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie said the Trojans are prepared to adapt to challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. (Daily Trojan file photo) While the negotiations between the #WeAreUnited group and the conference play out, Hufanga, McKenzie, Slovis and many other Trojans are on campus, getting ready for a season that — if it even takes place — will be unlike any other in the history of college football. However, McKenzie said he believes USC is equipped to deal with the situation, perhaps because of the sheer number of people that can work to ensure the team’s safety. When the USC Athletic Department announced June 23 that it would begin a three-phase plan for student-athletes across six sports to return to campus starting the following day, the United States was months deep in a pandemic with no clear end in sight. On Aug. 2, a group comprising hundreds of Pac-12 football players, self-titled #WeAreUnited, published a letter in The Players’ Tribune requesting that the conference meet a number of demands — including increasing medical coverage, fighting against racial injustice and distributing half of each sport’s revenue among that sport’s respective student-athletes — lest they boycott the 2020 season. According to the Times, the request stemmed from a lack of trust from the players toward the UCLA Athletic Department and stated the school had “perpetually failed” its student-athletes from a health standpoint in the past. The players and Scott ultimately had a meeting Thursday, which the players left “discouraged and deeply concerned,” according to a letter from the group written Friday and publicized Saturday. In it, they cited numerous concerns with Scott’s response, including insufficient coronavirus testing, a lack of legal representation for players in meetings, no Pac-12 prohibition of liability waivers and the dismissal of two Washington State football players allegedly over their support of the #WeAreUnited group. Note: This article was written prior to the postponement of Pac-12 sports through 2020. From players to coaches to staff and team personnel, college football teams travel and operate in large quantities, adding to the complexity of carrying out a 2020 season while mitigating the likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak. “This needs to be handled with a sense of urgency, compassion, and fidelity to scientific best practices as fall camp begins in 10 days,” the letter, signed by 18 players including Williams, read. “Without a discernible plan and mandates to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes, it is absurd, offensive, and deadly to expect a season to proceed.” This remains true as ever to this day — and Southern California has emerged as a hotspot in the country’s coronavirus surge. Though the Pac-12 released its full conference-only schedule July 31 with available make-up dates galore, there is hardly any certainty that the season will kick off as planned Sept. 26 — let alone finish. McKenzie said that fear surrounding the coronavirus, though perhaps alleviated due to the protocols and regulations, has not been fully eliminated. McKenzie said the team was looking forward to getting back together but that the feeling around campus is still quite different than in past offseasons. Redshirt junior cornerback Chase Williams signed the letter from the #WeAreUnited Pac-12 player group to Commissioner Larry Scott expressing concern over the conference’s approach to the upcoming season. (Ling Luo | Daily Trojan) But the players had specific demands of their own conference, including “player-approved health and safety standards enforced by a third party selected by players to address COVID-19, as well as serious injury, abuse and death,” as stated in The Players’ Tribune letter. In a press release shortly after the NCAA’s ensuing announcement, the group accused the Pac-12 of “slow-[walking] health & safety.” In the release, members cited their request to meet with the conference immediately regarding their concerns and the conference’s delay in holding those meetings as the Aug. 17 training camp start date approaches. “We were hoping for transparency … We just were hoping that it wasn’t like we’re just getting all these decrees and rules and not learning anything about it or not having any input on it, not knowing what’s going on really,” said McKenzie, who holds a position as one of four official liaisons of the UBSAA. “So I think they’ve done a good job of that — keeping us in the loop.” The Players’ Tribune letter came 46 days after USC student-athletes formed the United Black Student-Athletes Association in an effort to push the Athletic Department to better support its Black student-athletes as well as fight against racial injustice both within USC Athletics and beyond. Among the UBSAA’s 12 demands in its initial statement was that the Athletic Department weigh the voices of student-athletes regarding their return to campus amid the pandemic and hold consistent dialogue to directly hear their concerns. “Each day that the Pac-12 delays [its response] puts the players of this movement, it continues to put our health at serious risk,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Chase Williams said in the release. “When the pandemic first started, our — the higher-ups, the coaches and the staff — they did a great job of giving us resources and access when it comes to psychologists and making sure our mental health is stable,” Hufanga said. “You know, this is a tough time for everyone. And so for us just to have those kinds of resources and access and then moving forward and then working on to the field and trying to make sure our health is there, I think that was an important part.” There are far too many moving parts to foresee what will happen in college football or in the Pac-12 this fall. So as the Trojans continue to gear up for what will be at least an anomaly and at most nothing, they do so knowing that it could all slip away at a moment’s notice. “Everybody’s excited to see everybody and get back to seeing your teammates and all that,” McKenzie said. “But it’s still — it’s pretty serious around USC, to be honest. It’s kind of eerie.” “Whenever we go anywhere, we do a lot of business trips and a lot of structured work,” McKenzie said. “We have a lot of people, big support teams and all that. So I think we’re geared very well to deal with something like this because we can put people in the right positions to just make things go smoothly.” Despite all the social distancing measures put in place, Slovis said that being away from the team since spring ball was shut down March 12 — the day after the team’s first and only practice — may have helped improve the team’s chemistry and camaraderie. But USC is just one of many pieces of the puzzle that must fit together for college football to be carried out successfully this year, and that puzzle has recently become even more complex — especially in the Pac-12. According to junior safety Talanoa Hufanga, it looks like scheduling workout times, completing daily online wellness check-ins to make sure he’s cleared for that day’s workout and to access facilities and wearing a wristband to gain entry onto campus. Redshirt junior offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie said it’s following what he called a “social distance path” to grab workout gear before heading to the outdoor field. Slovis said it’s increasing the typical number of lifting groups from two to four or five, moving lifting equipment outside, running with social distancing in place, receivers and centers wearing gloves and quarterbacks wiping down balls after each rep.