Take Five with Chris Wiggins ’93

Chris Wiggins_cropped


Chris Wiggins ’93 is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and the chief data scientist at The New York Times. He is a member of Columbia’s Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, a founding member of the University’s Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and the co-founder of hackNY, a New York City-based initiative seeking “to create and empower a community of student-technologists.”

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I had just arrived from a large, public high school in Texas, so the only thing I knew for certain was that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was excited about the Core Curriculum, about New York City and about the brand-new Rabi Scholars Program, which sounded like a great chance to meet other students interested in scientific research. Most of all I was very curious, and the environment was very new to me. I spent quite a bit of time in Butler Library, having never seen so many books on so many different subjects — whole bookshelves about subjects I didn’t even know were academic fields of study! In general Columbia just seemed a place of limitless ideas and inquiry. In part this was because I had grown up in a state that took football very seriously; when I found out that Columbia had lost at football for four straight years, I thought that meant it must be a very serious and intellectual place. Also I had just finished the outdoor orientation hiking program, so when I arrived I was probably exhausted and happy to be in a bed with a roof over my head.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Carman 1015A is right next to the TV room. The Simpsons debuted my first year, and by the end of the year almost the whole of 10th floor Carman had learned to squeeze into the TV room to watch. I also remember not being able to study for a final because everyone was watching the invasion of Panama. Other than that, I remember how cool it was being able to get coffee and a bagel from a street vendor on the way to physics class.

What class do you most remember and why?

There were so many greats: Islam from Peter Awn, Buddhism from Robert Thurman, Chaos from Ed Spiegel, and Quantum Mechanics from Jacob Shaham. The most memorable, though, was Contemporary Civilization with Anders Stephanson GSAS’87, which was featured in Great Books by David Denby ’65, JRN’66. The range and profundity of ideas, the way Stephanson took seriously the insights and debate among such a variety of minds, all freshly arrived to higher education — it was quite a gift.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Alma Mater. She seems so calm and timeless. Every day I walk up The Steps and ask her to help me remember to do the right thing.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

So many things about my time since then have been so unpredictable, I know that if I changed anything, my entire life since Columbia would be completely different. So I have a hard time thinking of anything I would “do over” — each event is like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, a small perturbation on which the entire future would completely turn. I try not to spend time thinking about the infinite number of counterfactual universes that could have existed if I had done something differently, and become a different person. That said, I probably should’ve spent less time at the Marlin Bar and more time in Butler Library.