The Man Who Shared His Superpower


For decades, Tom Fomby has carried an obscure but powerful multitool in his intellectual toolbox. It lets him predict West Nile disease outbreaks. It let him determine that financial literacy can substantially reduce food insecurity (by up to 24%). It’s letting him determine if straightforward corporate scandals — as reported in the media — directly impact company stock prices.

Fomby didn’t want this multitool to remain obscure: He knew data analysis could answer a host of questions, regardless of the subject. It would be at least three decades before his fervor for data analysis would sweep across the SMU campus.

“Data is data,” says Fomby, a professor of economics at SMU. “You’ve got a toolbox. You can jump from doing economic research to [doing an analysis at] UT Southwestern. That training allows you to jump around and look at several things.”

Fomby had been “beating the drum” (as he puts it) to encourage fellow academics to adopt data analysis in their particular disciplines since 1984. Perhaps one of Fomby’s most noteworthy analyses involved the aforementioned West Nile study. In that study, he worked with researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center and Dallas County Health and Human Services to create a system to identify the best timing and locations to intervene and prevent infected mosquitoes from propagating. It might be notable that Fomby — an economist — hadn’t done any analysis involving public health data but for his adage: Data is data.

Now SMU’s supercomputers are being put to work on problems in a wide variety of subject areas — from mathematics to business (looking at firm response to mandated greenhouse gas disclosures)to physics (SMU physicists used earlier supercomputers to identify the Higgs boson particle).

SMU humanities professor Jo Guldi mined text from 100 years of British Parliamentary debates to get a better understanding of the history of eviction.

Dedman College seismologist Dr. Heather DeShon and fellow researchers are using SMU’s super-
computer — ManeFrame II — to study the triggers behind North Texas earthquakes, many of which have been tied to deep-well injection of wastewater from oil and gas production.

Fomby’s push toward data analysis at SMU spurred a 2017 task force that examined the prospects of how the research and teaching of data science could be expanded and coordinated at SMU.

“In the course of doing that task force, we were amazed by the breadth of activities, in data analytics,” says James E. Quick, SMU associate vice president for research, dean of graduate studies and professor of earth sciences James E. Quick. “From the business school to humanities to the arts.”

Having already secured one of the most powerful supercomputers in academia, SMU is now going about the work of establishing a center for high-performance computing, which will operate in conjunction with a data science institute.

The purpose is to facilitate access to high-performance computing, Quick says. “We’ve realized we’ve got a lot more going on with data. The data science institute’s goal is to get [the work] more coordinated — and more visible.”

This article is part of the 2020 Higher Education Review Magazine.