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UMass Center for Data Science draws representatives from Amazon, Google and more to campus

By DAVE EISENSTADTER
​@DaveEisen
 

AMHERST — Well-known businesses and organizations in Massachusetts and beyond are lavishing both time and money on the new Center for Data Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The center, established earlier this year, has received more than $1.5 million worth of computer hardware, cloud computing infrastructure, data sets and research funding from companies including Amazon, Google, MassMutual, Microsoft Research, Oracle Labs, Thomson Reuters and Yahoo, according to Andrew McCallum, director of the new center.

“The center is only six months old,” McCallum wrote in an email to the Gazette. “We are still ramping up. Lots more activity and engagement is yet to come.”

Students presented poster projects to representatives of many of those donating companies and others, who came to campus Oct. 21.

Amazon’s table was among those receiving the most attention at the event. Alborz Geramifard, a research scientist at Amazon’s Cambridge office, was one of the company employees fielding students’ questions. He and his coworkers showed off their own project —a voice-activated device able to answer questions from across a room. “To a certain degree Amazon has a high bar,” Geramifard said, adding that the company had openings for data scientists to work with language data that might be used with their device.

Deborah Bulger, executive director of strategic programs at McKesson Corp., a health care technology company, said it is seeking more data scientists to get into the health-care field. “We think health care is probably an underserved population when it comes to data science, so we’re very excited to meet some of the candidates here,” she said at the event. Bulger said data scientists in her company would look at financial data under new payment programs offered by the government, effectiveness data on certain drugs and population modeling for chronic diseases. The last time she checked for careers for data scientists in health care, Bulger said she found thousands of results. “Most organizations tell us they have a really hard time finding qualified data scientists,” she said.

Stefanie Costa Leabo came to the event representing the city of Boston’s analytics team, a 15-person department established by Mayor Martin Walsh over the past nine months. “We’d love to have talented folks from here come and serve as interns and maybe even join the team in a permanent fashion,” she said. “With a city as large as Boston we’re dealing with a lot of questions. We have a lot of data, so it’s ‘all hands on deck.’” Her team looks at traffic data to prevent congestion in the city and brings together building hazard data to relay to the city’s fire department, she said.

At the event, Katherine Gabriele of Canterbury, Connecticut — a junior in statistics and economics at UMass, as the data science concentration won’t begin until the fall of 2016 — stood by a poster she put together analyzing wage data of people of different sexual orientations. She said data science combines her interests in math and computer science. “Just doing research on it, I thought it was pretty cool how powerful the conclusions data scientists come up with are and how they can affect company decisions,” she said. Gabriele said she hopes to find a job where she can create social change through her data analysis. As for the event, she said she was looking forward to meeting and discussing possibilities with the different companies represented. “Well, gosh, like Google is here, so that’s pretty cool,” she said. “But I’m just interested in talking with anyone who shares my vision” of creating social change.

Trapit Bansal of Indore, India, a first-year doctoral student in computer science, said he was looking forward to meeting with Google, Amazon and Yahoo. He said he is excited by the data-science field and is studying machine learning and natural language processing. “Currently data science is the field touching every other field,” he said. “If you look at natural sciences, even biology and physics, data is something that is being utilized to a great extent now in problems.”

Emery Berger, a computer science professor at UMass, said the center for data science spans many math and computer science fields in high demand. “There’s lots of industry interest in all of these fields because industry has tons of data and wants to be able to understand things about the data.” Berger used the example of Springfield-based MassMutual, another company that sent a representative to the event. “They have built a data science lab right in downtown Amherst and it’s being led by some of our students,” he said, referring to the new center at Kendrick Place.

McCallum said he hopes to triple the size of the master’s of science concentration in data-related fields, and that there will soon be a new master’s concentration in data science as well as a certificate in data science. UMass has already tripled its number of computer science students in the past seven years to 800 undergraduates, 70 master’s degree candidates and 150 doctoral candidates, according to McCallum. Berger said excitement around the field is well-deserved. “It used to be data was really hard to get — now we have too much data,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.