The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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The Center for Data Science and MassMutual Host Local Data Scientists & Business Leaders

Nearly 50 Five College researchers, entrepreneurs, and leaders of local businesses and institutions convened for an evening of dining and networking at AmherstWorks on Tuesday, Oct. 24, an event sponsored by MassMutual and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Data Science.


The participants came not just from the Five Colleges, but from the MassMutual Data Science Development Program, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Kayon Partners, Lexalytics, and Archipelago Investments among others.


The evening began with hors d’oeuvres, followed by some “lightning talks” from Brant Cheikes, executive director of the Center for Data Science, and Laura Haas, dean of the College of Information and Computer Sciences.


Cheikes underscored the high level of enthusiasm for the “interdisciplinary impact” that data science and related programs are having not just within the academic world of the Five Colleges, but also in the local community.


“The data science faculty recognize that there is a high level of energy and activity across the Five College campuses, and we think that our local communities are curious to know more about what we are doing,” Cheikes said.


He emphasized that one mission of the Center for Data Science is to attract and retain data science talent so that graduates of Five College programs can remain in the region to boost economic activity in the area.


“Given all the energy and strengths of the Five Colleges, can we promote the idea of the Pioneer Valley as a regional data science hub that helps drive regional economic development?” Cheikes said. “We could go beyond what is typical of universities in terms of workforce development and impact.”


Haas pointed to research and development that uses data to analyze animal behavior and inform future action, such as tracking smokers’ behavior to help them quit and using past weather radar data in tracking and predicting bird migration.


“We hope that there is real potential here to drive regional economic development,” she said. “I would love to see more entrepreneurial activity in the Pioneer Valley.”


Next, representatives from Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College provided updates on the development of their respective academic data science programs.


Nicholas Horton, professor of statistics at Amherst College, said that the statistics program is working to teach students how to “think with data,” no matter their intended field of study.


Amherst College has students who want to “tackle interesting problems embedded within research projects, institutional research and the like,” Horton said.


He added that the program’s emphasis on “data science for social good” reinforces the liberal arts college’s mission to help students make sense of the world around them. He pointed to MassMutual’s “Data Days for Good,” where data science fellows work with local organizations to solve problems through data development and visualization tools.


 “It is great to see the MassMutual programs move forward on that front, and we want to connect with other towns, museums and institutions,” Horton said.


At Mount Holyoke College, an official data science major is expected to launch in the 2018-2019 academic year, said professors Andrea Foulkes and Valerie Barr.


The major will seek to underscore the importance of “cross-disciplinary scholarship” in data science at a liberal arts college. Mount Holyoke currently offers an individualized, interdisciplinary concentration, called the Data Science Nexus, that combines statistics and computer science courses within an applied domain.


Smith College launched a statistical and data sciences program in the fall of 2015.


The statistical and data sciences program was approved in part because of its “global reach and relevance,” said Ben Baumer, a professor of statistical and data sciences at Smith College.


Importantly, it also addresses Smith College founder, Sophia Smith’s dedication to offering programs in fields where women are typically underrepresented.


Christine Pfeil, director of the MassMutual Data Science Development Program (DSDP), gave the final presentation. She highlighted the program’s three-pronged strategy for their junior data scientists: recruiting recent graduates to work for three years alongside professionals, offering full graduate school tuition at UMass Amherst, and offering mentorship and hands-on training in the field.


She pointed to MassMutual’s participation in Data Days for Good, during which their employees work with local organizations to solve problems through data development and visualization tools.


“We are always seeking collaboration and opportunities to partner,” she said.


The night ended with dinner, dessert and more opportunities for leaders in data science within the Five Colleges to build a professional network for future collaboration.


Written by Morgan Hughes