Prince Afriyie Brings Global Perspective to School of Data Science

Caroline Newman
July 13, 2023
Prince Afriyie

Prince Afriyie’s pursuit of education has taken him thousands of miles from his Ghanaian hometown, but he doesn’t have to go far for his next move.

Afriyie, who has been at the University of Virginia since 2019, is moving from the statistics department to the School of Data Science this summer, where he will be an associate professor and director of the school’s residential M.S. in Data Science program.

It is the latest step in a journey that began in Ghana, when a middle school math teacher, who the students called Mr. Silence, announced that he would give a small monetary prize to the student who solved his question about systems of equations. Afriyie, eager for that prize, immediately tried to tackle the problem. Though he couldn’t solve it at the time, he began peppering Mr. Silence for more equations, more solutions.

“I think, from then, I just started chasing [the questions],” Afriyie said. “I became the math person in the class.”

Soon after he discovered his love of math, Afriyie developed an early love of teaching.

“All of my classmates would come ask me questions whenever they had a problem, and I got this joy, watching someone learn a new skill,” he said. “Teaching, for me, is something I could do for free… I love it and I get very good feedback from students about how passionate I am about teaching, which is rewarding to hear.”

After that middle school classroom, Afriyie completed high school and some college education in Ghana, attending Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, for mathematics. While there, he learned about a study abroad program that would allow him to come work for a short time in the United States. And so, in 2004, Afriyie found himself in New Jersey, working with other international students at a small amusement park.

He loved the whirlwind introduction to America but was preparing to return to Ghana when the summer ended until a chance encounter changed everything. While at a mall, he ran into a fellow student he had met on his flight to the U.S. from Ghana, who told Afriyie that he was going to transfer to an American university in Kentucky to finish his degree. Intrigued, Afriyie immediately looked into the possibility and, not long after, moved to Northern Kentucky University instead of going back to Ghana.

“It was a whirlwind,” Afriyie recalled. After transferring his visa, and taking some time off to work and save money to complete his studies, Afriyie earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Northern Kentucky University and went on to earn a master’s degree at Ball State University and a Ph.D. in statistics from Fox School of Business at Temple University.

Afriyie was drawn to statistics because he could see a direct line from problem to application.

“I can see exactly how something will lead to a very nice application,” he said.

He followed that interest first to the west coast, working as a faculty member at California Polytechnic State University, and then back east to UVA, where he became increasingly interested in data science and the new School of Data Science.

“The field of data science is relatively new, compared to statistics, but we solve the same kind of problems,” Afriyie said.

He was recently appointed to the statistics review committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where he will serve a three-year term. In his role on the committee, Afriyie will contribute to the advancement of statistical methods and testing in the field of public health.

His main research focus is on multiple hypothesis testing, or using data to determine key differences, in genomics data. One project, for example, involved comparing genomics to look for genes associated with particular types of cancer. Similar research led to the discovery of the BRCA gene, which we now know indicates a higher risk of breast or ovarian cancer.

At UVA, Afriyie is now working with UVA Health to sift through large amounts of data to determine key triggers for heart failure. He has also worked with faculty members in the School of Education to look at test scores and other parameters for students with disabilities, trying to determine strategies to best help these students.

“One good thing about being a data scientist or a statistician, you get to collaborate with a lot of people and to look at data from all of these different areas,” Afriyie said. “Typically, the methods are the same but the application areas can be very different.”

Citing his colleague Brian Wright, director of the undergraduate program, Afriyie noted that data science is “the liberal arts degree for the data age.”

“Regardless of your area, you need some kind of background in data,” he said.

In his new role, Afriyie will have the opportunity to open up the discipline he loves to more students.

“I think a lot about how we can make subjects like math or computer science or data science, which have historically been difficult to enter, more accessible for folks who may not think of themselves as quantitative, or for women and underrepresented groups,” he said. “That is one thing I will be doing as a director, working to attract a diverse body of students into the School of Data Science.”

Like his colleagues across data science at UVA, he will also have the opportunity to grow the school – UVA’s newest – nearly from its beginning.

“That has been a good impetus for me to get involved, sooner rather than later,” he said. “We are really gaining momentum.”