In the digital age, during a period of economic uncertainty and a global pandemic, the need for data scientists has never been greater.
And just when the world wants them most (data science was among LinkedIn’s top 15 in-demand jobs for 2021), these emerging innovators are getting their start at New College of Florida.
This fall, the College’s Master of Science in Applied Data Science program officially launched. The Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida approved the program back in March, nearly seven years after New College’s first graduate program was implemented.
Students have already enrolled from across the globe, pursuing data science as a lucrative pathway to begin solving the planet’s biggest problems— from creating cancer treatments to improving transportation.
“This is indeed exciting,” said Burcin Bozkaya, Ph.D., a New College professor of data science and the director of the Applied Data Science program. “The program has an increased focus on the ‘applied’ nature of data science. And one of the major points regarding the new program is a tighter collaboration and integration with the industry, as well as with the local community.”
The new two-year program, which consists of 36 credit hours spanning four semesters, blends interdisciplinary theory and practical skill application through courses such as “Exploratory Data Analysis,” “Applied Machine Learning” and “Data Visualization.” Students gain experience applying both R and Python to develop solutions for corporate partners, all while cultivating the industry knowledge and technical skills to thrive after college.
During the final semester, all students complete a paid, full-time practicum— either with one of New College’s partner companies or with another organization of their choice.
New Options, More Opportunities
Last spring, an advisory board— comprised of local, regional, and national executives and professionals— was created to further strengthen existing partnerships between New College and the data science industry.
A summer internship program, in addition to the usual spring practicum, was also added, along with industrial workshops, a seminar series, and project-based courses.
The current program allows undergraduates at New College in any area of concentration to combine their primary major with a secondary focus in applied data science, and to earn both a data science bachelor of arts (B.A.) and master of science (M.S.) degree.
“This 3+2 pathway allows any New College undergraduate in any area of concentration to complete their undergraduate and Applied Data Science Master of Science program in five years, instead of the usual six,” Bozkaya said.
Tiffany Washington, New College’s director of graduate enrollment and undergraduate strategic initiatives, leads recruitment efforts for the program. Growth is her top priority.
“I’m excited for what this program means for prospective students,” said Washington, who collaborates with Data Science Program Coordinator Nikita Bagley. “Now, master’s candidates gain even more hands-on experience through workshops and an additional internship component.”
Marina Sanchez, an international student from Spain who arrived at New College this fall, is one of the first attendees to experience the program’s new features.
She graduated from the Polytechnic University of Madrid in 2017 with a degree in telecommunication engineering and worked as a software engineer in the railway industry (developing security systems for trains).
“During those four years working in the railway sector, I became aware of the amount of useful data that is generated daily (and hardly ever stored or analyzed), which could be used to improve these security systems,” Sanchez said. “This is how my interest in data science started emerging and I decided to continue my studies in the field.”
New College’s graduate program intrigued her, she said, because of its combination of theoretical and practical content, as well as its small class sizes and one-on-one attention from faculty.
“I think that these small classes will give me the opportunity to know my colleagues and professors deeply, which I find essential for feeling like I’m part of a team where I can contribute and learn from others—feeling confident, supported and committed,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez looks forward to working with real datasets, meeting experts in the sector and completing a practicum— all of which will provide her with a “solid basis of knowledge and skills” to develop her professional career, she said.
“I’m sure that this master’s degree will give me the opportunity to deeply discover this science and its transversal applications, and will help me to choose the path I want to follow in my professional career—one that really suits my concerns and values,” Sanchez said. “Now that I have arrived at New College and have met my new colleagues, professors and staff, I am so excited to begin this challenging adventure with them. I have felt so welcome from the beginning, and I’m sure they will give me all the support and help I may need during this trip far from home.”
Sanchez is one of three international students in the Fall 2021 cohort. One- third of the cohort is female, and one- quarter is from abroad (representing countries such as Turkey and Brazil).
New College Professor of Mathematics Pat McDonald, Ph.D. initially designed the data science program alongside Associate Professor of Computer Science David Gillman, Ph.D. Bozkaya took the helm in August 2019.
There are currently eight faculty members—all from various disciplines, including statistics, computer science, mathematics, political science and bioinformatics.
Producing Top Talent
The post-graduate success rate in the master’s program speaks for itself.
“We are proud to say that our last cohort from the class of 2021 all secured full-time jobs in data science within one month of graduation,” Washington said. “Also, the median starting salary is $95,000 for data scientists.”
Behind this success is the integration of corporate partners, such as Novetta and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, with the academic program. These partnerships provide master’s program graduates with a competitive edge as they progress into the healthcare, environmental, public service, city planning and tech automation sectors.
“Our program is designed to prepare students to land their dream jobs as data scientists. It prepares students to use their experiences to chart their own career paths,” Washington said. “We are proud to see graduates successfully penetrating the sectors they desire to bring solutions to. This is why prospective students choose our program.”
Students like second-year Timothy McCormack, who plans to graduate in May, come from a variety of academic backgrounds. McCormack earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and visual art from Wheaton College in Massachusetts before pursuing data science at New College.
“I found out about the graduate program in data science from my brother, who is a New College data science alum, and I was initially drawn to the program for its technical content,” McCormack said. “Upon attending seminars and meeting the professors, I was convinced that this program would help me have a more meaningful career. I’m excited to use the expertise I’ve developed here at New College in developing software as a data scientist, and I hope to work in academia eventually.”
McCormack has already interned for a Dutch company in The Hague in the Netherlands—as a data science researcher, solving problems involving authenticity in art.
“I love tapping into technical creation. Whether it be Legos, biology or software, I have always loved studying systems,” McCormack said. “I hope that all people can find intrinsic motivation for the work that they do, because it makes life much brighter.”
New College data science students and faculty researchers are regularly in the spotlight.
In May 2020, for example, they partnered with Riff Analytics (a Boston, Massachusetts-based tech company, born from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab) to research ways to improve virtual communication in online platforms.
This was earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, when teleconferences and other forms of remote exchanges were rapidly becoming the new norms.
“Riff is a small company that analyzes group and team communications, and they try to find signals that they think are relevant for predicting group performance,” Bozkaya said. “For teams to be productive or reach their deliverables, they have to communicate effectively. This company is taking it to the digital communication world.”
In essence, Riff Analytics (a 2017-founded startup run by CEO Beth Porter) uses vocal data to model human interactions in video meetings and text chats, showing how individuals and teams interact when they collaborate. Riff Metrics then give insights on engagement, dominance, influence, interruption and flow.
Over time, people become more aware of their impact on others in team settings, and they use Riff feedback to change their behaviors and become more effective contributors. Porter was thrilled to find a team at New College to help enhance Riff’s model.
“New College is like this little hidden gem in the university system. It’s not a brand name like MIT or Harvard, but it’s full of such high-quality, incredibly intelligent people. Finding that pocket of excellence is just wonderful,” said Porter, who met Bozkaya while the two were both fellows in the MIT Media Lab. “At Riff, we engage in our own research, and we want to talk to (and work with) people who we think can add value to our grants.”
Riff has its own proprietary video and text-based chat platforms (teaching and learning programs), and the company is hoping to become a leading fixture in the industry. Porter has been involved in the study and practice of remote team management for two decades and, when the pandemic came into the picture, her research became more relevant than ever.
She knew Bozkaya would be a stellar collaborator, and he enlisted two of his students for the research: Andrew Reilly and Austin Anderson, who have since graduated.
“We wanted a smart, thoughtful group of people to work with so that we would have a good, robust, research- backed, sound set of principles going into our product design,” Porter said. “Andrew had a background in sociology/psychology and Austin had a background in voice analysis, which is exactly what we do. Those people are really hard to find.”
New College researchers helped develop new approaches for understanding the dynamics of human behavior in group conversations—such as online classrooms—for Riff to use in its products.
“Hopefully, it will have an impact,” Bozkaya said. “If this is becoming more the norm, I think there have to be studies developed like this one.”
The New College Foundation was proud to provide grant funding for this initiative.
“I’m excited to see our data science program give our students opportunities in real-life projects which are at the forefront of the field,” said Mary Anne Young, the executive director of the Foundation. “The Riff Analytics gift makes possible the involvement of New College students in the cutting-edge telecommunication sphere. The Foundation is delighted to be involved in making such opportunities available.”
As the Applied Data Science program grows, the enrollment team is keeping its eyes on representation and recruiting diverse talent.
Because of strategic initiatives aimed at bringing in global students, the 2020 and 2021 cohorts were more inclusive than they had ever been.
“It’s quite refreshing to see our students be so different and work together so well,” Washington said. “Seeing students of different genders, backgrounds and areas of study come together and find similarities is such a breath of fresh air.”
Diversifying the student body is a priority for New College as a whole. To this end, Washington has already started developing strategic advertising campaigns and coordinated personalized campus visits. She has found ways to reach students and alumni of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Latinos in tech organizations, female technology groups and international students.
“We’re making sure our students are not only prepared to tackle what they need
to learn in data science, but that they’re gaining the skills to work cohesively with a team of people who don’t necessarily look or think like them,” Washington said. “What we really value in our program is preparing students for the sector they wish to go into when they graduate.”
To read the entire Fall 2021 issue of Nimbus, visit issuu.com/newcol/docs/newcollege_nimbus89-fall_f_121521.
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.