Nitesh Chawla receives 2014 Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., Community-Based Research Award

Author: John Guimond

Nitesh Chawla, Frank Freimann Collegiate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA) at the University of Notre Dame, is the recipient of the 2014 Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., Faculty Community-Based Research Award, which is given annually by the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns.

Nitesh Chawla Nitesh Chawla

The award, in the amount of $5,000, honors a Notre Dame faculty member whose research has made a contribution in collaboration with local community organizations. Chawla’s passion since arriving at Notre Dame in 2007 has been leveraging big data for the common good. His research in network and data science in personalized health and wellness is translating into solutions for real problems within the community.

Chawla, who refers to himself as a dataologist, said that Americans’ health and wellness would improve if more attention were paid to the circumstances of people’s daily lives, such as access to grocery stores, recreational facilities and schools, in addition to whether they smoke or have allergies. In partnership with their doctors, people could then identify trends between their personal habits and certain diseases. Chawla said that tracking personal data on a large scale — big data — can help move people from insufficient health care to abundant health. “The health and wellness problem,” he said, is actually “outside of the setting of health care.”

Chawla said, “How can we leverage data about our lifestyles, environment, socio-economic conditions to develop an actionable and personalized health and wellness plan?” Just as Amazon and Netflix can give suggestions about the types of books and movies one might enjoy, Chawla hopes for a similar system to guide people to better health choices. “What if … all our data could be leveraged?” he asked. “If diseases are driven by lifestyle, shared experiences, similarities, behaviors and habits, we have an opportunity of doing that.”

For instance, regarding diabetes, it would be possible to explore “who are the non-diabetic, what do they look like, what are they doing, how are they similar to (you or me).” In this way people could become, Chawla said, “empowered to take the right action … That’s the power in collective data.”

Chawla said, “Practical data-driven innovations in personalized health and wellness will be transformative in our health care system. It can improve patient-centered outcomes, reduce costs and help eliminate disparities in health care. It is about leveraging population health data to drive personalized health outcomes.”

According to iCeNSA community health program manager and Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute’s Community Health Enhancement (CHE) program liaison Waldo Mikels-Carrasco, “Nitesh has a real special interest in the improvement of personalized health and health care and using data to streamline that process.”

In a recently completed local pilot project, Chawla, with his graduate student Dipanwita Dasgupta, collaborated with CHE program staff at Memorial Hospital in South Bend within its Aging-In-Place program at Heritage Place at LaSalle Square. Heritage Place is an independent living facility in South Bend.

The project was to develop a tool to improve the residents’ ability to manage their prescription medications. With the use of digital tablets, the residents tested the personalized health and wellness application developed by Chawla’s group, which provided them with personalized observations of daily living, such as reminders of when to take their medications.

According to Patty Willaert, manager of community outreach at Memorial, “The residents didn’t fully grasp that this was going to be the first use of the tool. There was a lot of frustration initially. Now, the residents have come to see that they are a part of the process and are giving valuable feedback.” They have become more active agents in their own care.

Margo DeMont, executive director of Community Health Enhancement at Memorial Hospital, said, “I feel our seniors crossed that bridge to technology and feel comfortable using technology. Nitesh opened it all up for us. He is a very dedicated, humane person.”

Chawla’s collaboration with the CHE program and Heritage Place at LaSalle Square residents will continue toward a comprehensive understanding of the impact of smart health technology in forming health and wellness. Future projects are already in discussion to model and study how to appropriately structure the incentives for the residents of aging-in-place communities in the region.

Chawla works not only in his own discipline, but also across disciplines, encouraging projects with graduate and undergraduate students from Notre Dame in collaboration with a variety of partners in the South Bend area. In addition, according to Mikels-Carrasco, Chawla “has made himself and iCeNSA available to aspiring local high school students interested in exploring the study of network and data science and is also launching two new funded pilots with a middle school and a diabetic population."

Chawla received his Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from the University of South Florida in 2002. His research interests are broadly in the areas of big data: data mining, machine learning, network science and their applications social networks, health care informatics/analytics and climate data science. He directs the iCeNSA and the Data Inference Analytics and Learning Lab at Notre Dame. Chawla’s multiple awards include outstanding teacher awards, outstanding dissertation award, Michiana 40 Under 40, National Academy of Engineers New Faculty Fellowship and a number of best paper awards and nominations. He received the IBM Watson Faculty Award in 2012 and the IBM Big Data and Analytics Faculty Award in 2013. He serves as a principal investigator or co-PI on more than $11.5 million of external research funding since 2007.

The Ganey Award is funded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., and awarded by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. The center facilitates community-based learning, research and service for Notre Dame undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. Since 1983, more than 15,000 students and hundreds of faculty have been engaged in its courses, research and programs.

For more information about the Ganey Award, visit

Contact: Mary Beckman, Center for Social Concerns, 574-631-4172,