Academia and industry often are treated as separate enterprises—distinct in themselves, and incongruous when taken together. But the ties between Morningside Heights and the rest of Manhattan are deep-rooted and the boundaries too porous to resist the travel of ideas between one firmament and the other. Flitting across the dividing line is none other than Chris Wiggins, an associate professor in the department of applied physics and applied mathematics.
In addition to his variegated teaching, advisory, and research responsibilities, Wiggins doubles as chief data scientist for the New York Times and co-founder of HackNY, an organization that connects college students to the greater New York City technology ecosystem. Though his involvements are mind-numbing in magnitude, Wiggins has not allowed his Columbia duties to fall by the wayside. Email him at 3 a.m., and don’t be surprised if you get hit with a blazing-fast reply less than one minute later.
Founded in 2012, Columbia’s Data Science Institute, where Wiggins’ office resides, occupies a lion’s share of Mudd’s fourth floor. As I enter through a glass door that seems cordoned off from the rest of the building, I make note of the superior, renovated design of the space—a definite upgrade from the rest of Mudd. With experts predicting that automation will result in massive job displacement in the years to come, it’s no surprise that Columbia is doubling down in fields like machine learning and data science.
Wiggins has been a faculty member since 2001. But even before that, he was a student in Columbia College, graduating in the class of 1993. One of my first questions for Wiggins is what he makes of the Core Curriculum, having been a student of it and now a pedagogue. I get the sense that the question came out of left field—his undergraduate years, now over 20 years past, surely weren’t on the top of his mind. But it isn’t long before I sense his synapses beginning to fire.
“I would say three of the things that drew me to Columbia were the Core, New York City, and the chance to participate in what was then a brand new program called the Rabi Scholars Program,” Wiggins tells me.
Wiggins’ praise for the Core isn’t expressly focused on its curricular content. In Core classes, he believes, faculty are not directly lecturing at students; rather, they are creating the conduits for students to learn. But calling the experience autodidactic doesn’t quite get it right, either. In Core classes, he argues, faculty lay the groundwork for students to engage with one of the best sources of knowledge—other great thinkers. Their engagement with these great thinkers is not a solitary enterprise. Students get to work together to unpack, dissect, question, and cogitate—an experience that cannot easily be reproduced in a lecture hall.
Yet, there is one looming question about the Core that seems to crop up in practically every conversation, reflecting a fear which, if true, poses an existential threat to its longevity. In an era when educational discourse is dominated by STEM, is the vaunted Core Curriculum still relevant?
Wiggins, despite his involvement in both academia and industry, believes that the Core is, in fact, timeless. He says that the issues the Curriculum addresses are not specific to a particular time or place. Rather, they are evergreen matters of the human condition. He also states that he’s not the only one involved in technology and startups to espouse this point of view. He points to the example of David Soloff, who graduated from Columbia College in 1991. Soloff founded Premise Data, a company that has raised over $50 million in venture capital, and says that the education of the Core was instrumental for him as a startup founder.
Beaming, Wiggins explains that he even read the Greek myths to his kids, five-year-old twins and a seven year old, but that he’s now moved on to teaching them Norse myths and the Mahabharata.
Wiggins’ passion for the Core manifested itself in one of his more recent projects. Last year, he and colleague Matthew Jones, the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization, introduced a class called Data: Past, Present, Future. The class tackles issues related to data with both a humanistic and computational bent. Wiggins states in no uncertain terms that the class was inspired by both his and Jones’ thinking about the Core.
“There is a set of questions about data today in 2017 … about how we make sense of ourselves and our world,” says Wiggins. He contends that these questions are going to be with us for the next century, but that that the tools to grapple with them are “not being taught to future senators, future CEOs, and future statisticians. So that’s what we set out to do.”
Whether he’s describing the Core, his current intellectual engagements (multivarious as they may be), or his work in the industry, Wiggins’ thinking converges on a certain intuition about his purpose as an educator—and, in turn, his role in shaping the next generation of innovators. Though his interests are manifold, they are not disconnected. They reflect a kind of confluence between academic work and social responsibility that extends far past the rectilinear boundaries of Morningside Heights. When I ask him about his work at the Times, he mentions that he joined while on sabbatical in the summer of 2013, motivated in part by the Snowden leaks.
But perhaps a more germane example of Wiggins’ philosophy is HackNY, which he co-founded alongside Evan Korth, a professor at New York University, in 2010. HackNY organizes student hackathons during the school year and also coordinates the HackNY fellows program, which pairs students with NYC startups like Buzzfeed, Giphy, and Tumblr for summer internships.
Since HackNY’s inception, student interest in startups has soared—and other organizations have responded to this interest. One such example is the prestigious Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers Fellows Program. The summer fellowship, which two Columbia students were awarded last year, affords its recipients the opportunity to attend exclusive events with some of Silicon Valley’s most revered luminaries, all while receiving mentorship from company executives. Wiggins tells me that Andy Chen, KPCB partner and program founder, met with him several times and interviewed HackNY alumni to discuss the program before launching it. (In an email to The Eye, Andy Chen corroborated that HackNY was indeed one source of inspiration for the program.)
But eight years ago, recounts Wiggins, the notion that you could do an internship at a startup “wasn’t really a thing.” In 2010, startups weren’t all the buzz like they are now, especially not in New York. Wiggins whips out his phone to show me a graph of startup investment by city from a report released two days prior. The report indicates that New York City surpassed San Francisco—the heart of Silicon Valley—in venture capital funding for the third quarter of 2017. Wiggins says that back when he founded HackNY, there was a certain narrative at play; students did not think of startups as places where they could spend their summers.
“Narratives are things that you can build without any money or infrastructure. So what we set out to do [eight] years ago was to create a counternarrative about New York City and about how students could put their grey matter to work,” says Wiggins. “My study of the history of innovation pointed out to me that there was a very singular role that engineering faculty could play in creating that sort of narrative. And the way you could do it was by creating a community.”
In Wiggins’ view, the bond that keeps HackNY intact, the nexus of all of its activity, is its community. When passionate students come together, he believes, they bring out the best in each other. At first, Wiggins’ involvement seems fairly hands-off—he doesn’t believe that he can foist learning upon students. Yet, as I continue to speak with him, his posture as an educator becomes increasingly apparent. Just as he remarked about the pedagogical proclivities of the Core, Wiggins believes his role is to create the groundwork for students to learn—often a kind of social apparatus, or in his words, the “social engineering necessary to convince people to want to think really hard.”
It’s a mantra he seems to have upheld since HackNY’s inception, and one that he continues to act upon today. What undergirds this philosophy is the faith that students are intrinsically capable of learning, and that, once conditions support them, they’ll forge ahead independently.