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Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures to begin Jan. 21

11 January 2023

The Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures in the Eberly College of Science, a series of free public lectures now in its 29th year, will return to Penn State on Jan. 21.

This year’s lecture series, titled “Exploring Open Science and Big Data,” will focus on how researchers are using and sharing “big data” to address longstanding scientific questions and make important societal contributions. 

Attendees of the lectures will hear from researchers at Penn State and beyond who are working to develop tools and methods for exploiting and sharing big data sets for public good—in fields including statistics, genomics, public health, astronomy and astrophysics, computer science, economics, and environmental science and management.

Returning to an in-person format after two years, the lecture series this year will be held in 100 Thomas Building on the Penn State University Park campus on five consecutive Saturday mornings, Jan. 21 through Feb. 18, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

More information about the Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures is available at

The series begins this year on Jan. 21 with a lecture by Nicole Lazar, professor of statistics at Penn State, titled “Functional Neuroimaging in the Era of Big Data and Open Science.”

In the past 30 years, functional neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have revolutionized the study of the human brain. At the same time, problems with reproducibility and replicability have plagued the field, owing in part to historically small sample sizes, a plethora of choices at the data preprocessing and analysis stages, and a lack of transparency in reporting. In this talk, Lazar will give a general introduction to fMRI, its strengths, and its weaknesses. She will then survey some of the issues surrounding reproducibility and replicability of neuroimaging studies. Some remedy may come in the form of open science practices, which she will also discuss.

Following Lazar’s lecture on Jan. 21, the series will continue through Feb. 18 with the following topics:

Jan. 28, “Scientific Discovery and Education with the Legacy Survey of Space and Time: Professional and Citizen Science Opportunities,” presented by Niel Brandt, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and professor of physics at Penn State.

The Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), to be conducted by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory starting in late 2024, will be a 10-year color movie of about half the sky to high sensitivity in the optical and near-infrared wavelengths. Its data will have enormous scientific scope, allowing breakthrough studies of the nature of dark matter and dark energy, cosmic explosions and other transient events, supermassive black holes, the structure of our galaxy, and the contents of our solar system. Since its early days, the LSST has been planned as a survey for the public, and the 500 petabytes of images and data products will be a treasure trove for both professional astronomers and interested citizen scientists. In this talk, Brandt will describe the scientific potential of the LSST as well as its opportunities for citizen science and education.

Feb. 4, “Combining satellite imagery with machine learning to address global challenges,” presented by Tamma Carleton, assistant professor of economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The combination of satellite imagery and machine learning has begun to transform our ability to map, monitor, and influence many global challenges, ranging from deforestation to poverty eradication to illicit activity. However, this emerging research area is data-intensive and computationally demanding, making participation impossible for many researchers, governments, and non-governmental organizations. In this talk, Carleton will describe how satellite imagery and machine learning are being used to fill traditional data gaps. She will then focus on new algorithmic innovations that make this field more accessible to a wider array of users, highlighting specific use cases and publicly available tools that aim to democratize access to a powerful new source of global information.  

Feb. 11, “Big Data Analytics in Tourism and National Park Research,” presented by Bing Pan, professor of commercial recreation and tourism in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State.

Visitors to a destination or a national park interact with information technologies throughout their journeys and leave various online digital traces. Researchers can tap into these traces for forecasting and monitoring visitors in tourism and national park settings. Pan will discuss how search engine queries, website logs, mobile phone data, reservation data, social media, GPS traces, and simulations can help us monitor, predict, and manage visitors to a place or a national park, understand their demographics and visitation experience, or find the best evaluation strategy in a national park in an emergency scenario.

Feb. 18, “The Role of Statistical Data Privacy in Support of Open Science and Public Policy,” presented by Aleksandra Slavkovic, associate dean for graduate education in the Eberly College of Science and professor of statistics and public health sciences at Penn State.

A vast amount of sensitive data (e.g., health, financial, genomic, survey data) is collected and archived by corporations, government agencies, health networks, and social networking websites. The social benefits of analyzing these data are significant and include support for open data access and reproducibility. However, the release of these data and/or analyses can be devastating to the privacy of individuals and organizations. In this talk, Slavkovic will give an overview of challenges associated with protecting confidential data. She will also discuss how integrating tools from statistics and computer science can provide formal privacy protection and thus address some of these challenges.

About the Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures

The Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science was founded by Abhay Ashtekar in 1995, soon after he arrived at Penn State as director of a new research center that subsequently evolved to become the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos. It owes its success to tireless efforts and meticulous planning by Barbara Kennedy, who presided over the series during its first 25 years, making it one of the most successful science outreach events in central Pennsylvania.


Penn State encourages qualified persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about physical access provided, you may call 814-867-5830 or email in advance of your participation or visit.