Middle Tennessee State University has joined with two state universities in a grant-funded project that aims to bolster regional workforce development in the tech sector, promote collaborative research and build a foundation for future public and private partnerships.
MTSU, through its Data Science Institute, along with Tennessee Tech University and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga were awarded an almost $250,000 National Science Foundation grant for an 18-month initiative that began this month.
Data Science Institute Director Charlie Apigian said he and Co-Director Ryan Otter feel the grant’s purpose fits perfectly with the institute’s core principles: workforce development; projects that help the community; and partnerships that enhance research, programs and other opportunities for MTSU students.
The three universities are equal partners in the grant, with Otter serving as the co-principal investigator for MTSU. He and Apigian credit UTC’s Anthony Skjellum, principal investigator for the grant, with pushing the project proposal forward.
“This grant is exactly what we want in terms of moving forward with the Data Science Institute,” said Apigian, a professor in the Department of Information and Analytics. “Partnerships are things we have to do to move forward in a fast moving, highly technical area, which is data science and cyber infrastructure.”
Apigian said the institute hopes to tap into its network of collaborators cultivated over the past several years. A passionate advocate within Nashville’s tech community, Apigian helped launch the MTSU Data Science Institute in 2018. The university announced earlier this year that it would offer a new bachelor’s degree in data science and a graduate certificate starting this fall.
“We plan on partnering with government, private entities, startups, large companies, you name it … and other universities,” he said. “All of those give us an opportunity to go so far beyond what we could do within our own walls.”
Otter, a biology professor, echoed those sentiments, saying the concept behind the grant is to “bolster a regional area by taking similar-sized institutions that have different strengths and weaknesses and forming a collaboration that’s greater than the sum of the individual entities.”
He also praised the National Science Foundation for recognizing the need to better support underserved populations, from addressing gender and racial disparities within scientific fields to closing gaps between smaller higher education institutions and their much larger peers that have larger endowments and access to more resources.
“They’ve recognized that the need for research and education goes well beyond an individual campus,” Otter said. “The idea of connecting and collaborating is no longer a really interesting thing to do, it’s essential, so they’ve been trying to put forth initiatives to support that collaborative nature.”
A key goal of the grant is to assemble a consortium of two- and four-year institutions that will be able to develop and sustain collaborative projects and facilitate research for the longer term. While initial plans called for in-person meetings among the institutions, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed collaboration to a virtual environment for now.
Regardless, Otter and Apigian said MTSU students will benefit from a cooperative regional tech environment that provides premium skills development opportunities during their academic journeys as well as enticing career opportunities post-graduation.
“Our passion is to create career ready students in data science,” Apigian said. “We have a workforce ready to build, and we need help from outside entities to stay at the forefront of what we’re doing, but more importantly to maintain those connections with students.”
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)