Interests converge as the data science agenda grows

by Arts & Sciences staff


December 10, 2021

It started with students approaching faculty members to create self-designed majors around the use of data.

“Our undergraduate approached me in 2017 to ask me about a self-designed major, where she wanted to focus on the intersection between data analytics and – much to my surprise and dismay at the time. – dance. Dance! “Said Dan Runfola, Assistant Professor of Applied Science at William & Mary.” Here is a student who really cared about the ‘communication’ side of data science – pushing the boundaries, just because she didn’t. had no idea that these limits existed in the first place. “

Data science is an academic field that draws on the intersection of computer science, statistics, mathematics, information science and the application areas in which these datasets are used, explained Runfola.

Although its foundation lies within STEM, data science often thrives by leveraging its footprint not only in the natural, computer, and physical sciences, but also in the humanities, social sciences, business, science, science and technology. law – and even, in the case of the student from Runfola, the performing arts.

Student enrollment in William & Mary’s data science courses (including summer courses) continues to increase. Currently there are 79 students pursuing the BS degree.

“Students were asking us for help creating elements of data science in self-designed majors that integrated their academic interests,” said Matthias Leu, associate professor of biology, current director of William’s data science program. & Mary. “A select group of faculty began to discuss how we might design a formal academic program, and the enthusiasm continues to grow. “

To date, the faculty has designed and obtained formal approval from the Commonwealth of Virginia for a data science minor and one Major leading to a BS degree. Next step: create a separate academic unit integrated into the IT department. After that, the focus will be on designing a second major leading to a bachelor’s degree.

Student enrollments continue to grow and the Commonwealth of Virginia has embarked on data science at W&M. This year, Arts & Sciences plans to hire up to five new faculty members to meet demand and create a center of academic excellence.

Training undergraduate students is a Commonwealth priority, and Virginia has provided funding to data science faculty, including funds dedicated to recruiting faculty from backgrounds under-represented in the field. This support is in addition to Tech Talent funds intended for state universities to build cohorts of graduate students with sophisticated technical skills.

William & Mary’s data science program, initially led by Runfola, benefited from Leu’s leadership and will now be led by world-renowned data scientist and incoming director Anthony Stefanidis, professor of computer science and incoming associate director Jaime Settle , Director of Wakefield Terme University Distinguished Associate Professor of Government. Stefanidis joined W&M in 2020 after chairing a large and active department and establishing a research center with more than $ 40 million in federal and private funding at George Mason University. Settle is a distinguished researcher, studying social media and co-heading a center for social science research methods at William & Mary.

“What an exciting time we find ourselves in when it comes to data science in the arts and sciences,” Stefanidis said. “We have remarkably talented professors in all of our disciplines and such student interest. It will be such a pleasure to collaborate with so many colleagues across A&S, to strengthen data science and to build its future at W&M in a way that is true to our history and who we are.

Likewise, Settle noted, “There is such a passion among the faculty for what data science can teach students about how to think about problems and seek answers.

William & Mary’s data science program takes a highly interdisciplinary approach. Program Faculty have a range of knowledge and experience, encompassing digital humanities, geology, health sciences, geospatial analysis, ethics, government, IT and Chinese (to name a few -a).

“We are excited to create and innovate our Data Science program as a strong and integral presence in the A&S University community,” said Maria Donoghue Velleca, Dean of Arts and Sciences. “The emphasis on data literacy, critical thinking, problem solving and communication aligns so well with the philosophy of a liberal arts education. We are especially grateful to the incoming leadership of Professors Stefanidis and Settle. “

A new structure places Data Science in an autonomous unit of the Computer Science Department and will have affiliated research laboratories located across campus.

“We’re making the program accessible to first-year students, familiarizing them with shared programming tools and analytical skills,” said Settle. “Along the way, students can pursue what they love about the liberal arts curriculum and incorporate data science as a smart career decision and incredibly useful to inform their other college courses.”

Leu said that in his conversations with the students, they repeatedly mentioned three things that turned them on about the Data Science program.

“First, they can get a degree that prepares them for a well-paying job without going to college,” he said. “Second, they like the emphasis on real-world applications in our courses. And third, our interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research allows them to specialize in fields of their choice.

Stefanidis stresses that the goal of the university’s data science program is to bring together a strong group of academic researchers who are performing original research in the field and to support their collaborative activities with W&M faculty and students across all areas. disciplines.

“Data science will take advantage of the liberal arts approach that characterizes our university, to operate and develop at the intersection of various academic disciplines, supporting and supporting them,” he said. “The uniqueness of W&M will shape the type of scholarships our faculty undertake, to develop a program that will be nationally recognized and develop future leaders in the field.”

Collaboration and brainstorming among faculty generated additional benefits, according to Settle: “My own starting point is computational social science work. In my research and teaching, I am increasingly interested in ethical aspects: how does the content of my course fit into the larger field and context? How can I help students start thinking about this? “

“The promise of interdisciplinarity is an integral part of the field of data science,” noted Donoghue Velleca. “We look forward to welcoming new teachers and adding their enthusiasm to our mix of talents. “

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