Brett Drake, Leader in Data and Child Welfare Research, Installed as Endowed Professor

Faculty; Research; Social Work

Brown School colleagues, staff, family and friends gathered April 13 at the Clark-Fox Forum to honor Brett Drake as he was installed as the school’s Professor of Data Science for the Social Good in Practice.

Rodrigo Reis, interim co-dean of the Brown School, told the audience that endowed professorships reflect Washington University’s deep appreciation and recognition for extensive work in their fields of study. He said the Brown School has endowed Drake’s professorship due to the importance of data and its role as a strategic priority driving Equity 2030, the school’s strategic plan. “He is committed to advocating for our capacity to train students in methods and in our ability to make data accessible,” Reis said, noting Drake’s significant role in using data to improve child welfare.

In her introduction of Drake, interim co-dean Tonya Edmond cited his 31 years as a researcher and teacher at the Brown School, and his commitment to child welfare inspired by his early work in child protective services in California. “Brett is a national leader in obtaining, maintaining, and analyzing data in the area of child and family studies,” Edmond said. She noted that, with his colleague and wife, Melissa Jonson-Reid, he created a database using statewide data in Missouri that has been widely used for research on child maltreatment. She added that Drake has been “among the leaders in setting benchmarks in child welfare epidemiology.”

Drake was installed in the endowed professorship by Washington University Provost Beverly Wendland, with concluding remarks by Mary McKay, the vice provost for interdisciplinary initiatives and a former Dean of the Brown School.

Drake’s address, “Harnessing Big Data for the Social Good: Next Steps,” celebrated the still-unmet potential of data, while noting pitfalls in its misuse. “We are in a genuinely new time,” he said, as computers have made large amounts of data more useful and accessible. “We’re in the awkward teenage years of Big Data,” he said, with both the unlimited potential and the capacity for mistakes.

Drake concluded with thanks to his family, particularly Jonson-Reid, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work Research and the Brown School’s associate dean for transdisciplinary faculty affairs. “Everything that’s important about my research, she’s had a hand in,” he said.