Big Data, Big Opportunities

Data science is among the fastest-growing career fields. In Columbian College’s Data Science Program, students are mastering tomorrow’s technology and stepping into today’s workplace.

GW Data Science students
Data Science students (from left) Meghan Foster, Danielle Cuddington and Abdulrahim Sheikhnureldin with Larry Medsker. (Photo: Logan Werlinger)
April 13, 2016

By John DiConsiglio

Danielle Cuddington imagines that the global surveys she conducts in her day job at the Pew Research Center will someday affect international elections. William Noone sees himself forecasting stock market trends as a future Wall Street trader. And Meghan Foster hopes to be at the center of a physics lab, deciphering discoveries that influence humankind’s relationship to science.

The three Columbian College graduate students have vastly different career aspirations, as well as undergraduate degrees that vary from sociology and women’s studies to business and math. But they have more in common than it may initially seem.

Each recognized that, to reach the top of their professions, they needed to acquire a skillset that barely existed a decade ago—and that few people fully understand today: the ability to interpret so-called “Big Data,” massive troves of digital information that have become vital to fields from marketing to medicine. And to increase their knowledge, as well as to gain an advantage in a fiercely competitive job market, they turned to Columbian College’s new Data Science Graduate Program.

An interdisciplinary collaboration among the Departments of Statistics, Mathematics, Physics, Economics, Geography and Political Science, the Data Science Program enrolled 44 students in its inaugural year. The program offered an MS and a graduate certificate at Foggy Bottom and will add the same degrees at the Virginia Science & Technology campus beginning this fall. With a curriculum that stresses extracting actionable insights from vast collections of information, the program prepares students to immediately step into an array of fields that increasingly rely on data science techniques and theories.

“The world is changing and the job market is changing,” said Columbian College Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives and Professor of Mathematics Yongwu Rong, a lead designer of the program. “Data science is among the fastest growing fields. For our students, it’s important that we understand this trend and provide an educational experience that enhances their job-seeking opportunities.”

With 10 Columbian College professors providing expertise and insights on topics ranging from statistical computing and econometrics to political analysis and geographical information systems, the curriculum is designed to showcase the range of data science applications. Leveraging its Washington, D.C., location, the program is also negotiating partnerships with government, technology consultants and private industry experts to secure coveted internships.

“In this town, everyone has an MBA. I wanted something that would differentiate me from the pool,” said Noone, a first-semester graduate student with an undergraduate degree in finance and economics. “Data science is hot and getting hotter.  A degree like this really stands out in a crowd.”

From a Niche to a Must

Once a niche corner of computer science, data science is now permeating virtually every profession—even while many people remain confused about exactly what it is. As the prevalence of data-related fields grows so has the demand for trained data scientists. The research firm Gartner predicted a shortage of 100,000 data scientists in the United States by 2020. A recent CrowdFlower survey found that 83 percent of companies said there weren’t enough data scientists to fill their demand. Harvard Business Review even declared data scientist to be the “sexiest career of the 21st century.”

“The demand for specialists skilled in data analysis is ever-growing, crossing every sector of our economy,” said Columbian College Dean Ben Vinson. “GW is helping to meet that need.”

At its core, data science involves analyzing, manipulating and interpreting big data—whether it’s doctors basing patient diagnoses on biometrical information or marketers constructing client profiles around social media posts. “There is a lot of data out there and it isn’t always represented as numbers. Text analysis is increasingly important,” said Larry Medsker, research professor of physics and director of the Data Science Program. “There is a need for data scientists everywhere.”

Meghan Foster, a second-semester student, is hoping a data science degree will translate into operating high-performance computers in a physics lab. “Every physics lab has maybe one or two theoretical physicists, but there’s always a need for people who can actually program and code, run the technical models and analyze the results of experiments,” she said.

In the classroom, the GW Data Science Program instructs students on complex topics like data mining (extracting patterns from large amounts of data), machine learning (a subsection of computer science that essentially teaches machines how to think) and data-analysis software like Python and R. Guest speakers have included professionals from technology-related industries.

But information studies isn’t restricted to computer programming. It may take the form of analyzing Twitter text for clues to public opinion or capturing GIS locations for disaster relief. “Geography, like most fields, has been becoming increasingly quantitative over the years. So data science is a natural fit,” said Michael Mann, a professor of geography who also teaches data science courses. “These days, I consider myself as much of a data scientist as a geographer.”

Meanwhile, Medsker and data science consultant Brian Wright are in the process of recruiting data professionals and CEOs in D.C. tech firms to serve on an external advisory board, consulting with the program and offering students mentorship and career opportunities. GW joined the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Governor’s Data Internship Program (GDIP), through which government agencies give students access to real-world data for state-sponsored projects. GDIP is also working with the program to identify potential internships. “We want to connect out students to the marketplace and open as many doors for them as we can,” Medsker said.

Already, faculty members have helped LuLu Zhang, a second-semester student who works part time at a digital advertising agency, land a summer internship with Amazon in Seattle. And Abdulrahim Sheikhnureldin, an undergraduate taking data science courses as part of his political science and computer science double major, parlayed the program’s resources into an internship with a D.C. political analytics firm.

“A lot of people are tech savvy and a lot of people can code, but not a lot can look at a problem and say: ‘Here’s how to solve it,’” Sheikhnureldin said. “That’s what this program is really about: learning how to be a problem-solver.”