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UMass Data Students Rub Elbows With Industry Leaders

Aditya Shastry of India had two years of statistics experience in the finance field, the start of what would have seemed a lucrative career. But he found his work limiting; he wanted to work on his own project.

He applied to the University of Massachusetts Amherst master’s degree program in data science.

“Instead of learning in the industry specific programs where you have one model you develop, I wanted to get a broader understanding so I could implement something of my own,” he said.

Shastry was one of many students in the UMass Data Science program, now in its second year, who got to rub elbows with data science professionals from the likes of Google, NVIDIA, MassMutual, and dozens of other companies at a research symposium on Thursday, April 27.

Emma Kearney, a master’s student in statistics, attended the conference as one of the co-chairs of the Graduate Researchers in Data student organization.

Kearney and her group try to promote data science across many fields at UMass, allowing people in fields without as much computer science knowledge access to data science techniques.

“I personally started taking more data science courses this semester,” she said at the conference. “I have this strong statistical background but now I can apply it to the computer science field. I find environmental, climate, and energy applications exciting.”

The morning’s presentations she found the most interesting were one from Bradley Palmer of NVIDIA Corporation, who presented on that companies many data collaborations. One of the projects involved using satellite imagery to show how greenhouse gas emissions and carbon are affecting agriculture.

“A project like that is exciting to me,” she said.

Forrester Cole, a software engineer for Google, attended the symposium to talk about work his team did with a student from UMass over the summer on face-recognition software.

Cole said he couldn’t speak for Google as a whole, but that his research group is interested in finding people who have strong research background in computer vision or graphics with an interest in pushing those topics further on their own.

Cole said he sees UMass’s Data Science Center as a good source for academic collaborations.

“We really love to work with Ph.D. students as interns and so it is an opportunity to get to know other people in academia in the same area,” Cole said of the symposium.

Jeff Catlin of Lexalytics, a text analytics software company with an office in Amherst, said UMass has been a good source of hires for his company.

“Our chief scientist is here; I hired him out of UMass six or seven years ago,” he said. “We’ve hired three or four more over the years and most of them are still with us.”

Sears Merritt of MassMutual said his company hires freshly graduated college students and has them enroll in courses at UMass while they work.

“They are getting mentored by senior data scientists at MassMutual while we are leveraging the academic world to train them up,” he said. “At the end we have really seasoned and capable data scientists.”

Katherine Newman, provost of UMass Amherst, called the center at the cutting edge of its field, and praised it for mixing industry and research and giving students access to people working on big problems in big data.

“The Center for Data Science is an exemplary model for bringing partners together and being a cauldron of innovation,” she said.

Brant Cheikes, executive director for the center, said he sees a bright future for the center and its students and faculty.

Chiekes’ priorities have been to grow the number of faculty and the number of industry partners for the center.

Thursday’s symposium had 90 industry attendees from 45 companies, about triple that of the previous year, he said.

“That is a very powerful endorsement by Massachusetts area companies in this institution for data science and what we have to offer to them,” he said. “That endorsement is something that is going to give me enthusiasm going into the next year.”

By  - Apr 28, 2017