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MTSU’s 1st data science degree graduates praise fa...

MTSU’s 1st data science degree graduates praise faculty support, prospects

Data has always fascinated recent Middle Tennessee State University graduate Musa Touray, so his interest was piqued when he saw that MTSU had begun offering data science concentrations a few years ago.

The university then transitioned to offering data science as a full undergraduate degree program not long after, a perfect fit for Touray — one of the first three graduates from the interdisciplinary program who walked the stage inside Murphy Center just over a month ago.

A West African native and Nashville resident, Touray was joined by fellow data science graduates and Franklin, Tennessee, residents David Jean and Kevin Smalley. They enter a job market where entry-level salaries average $70,000 to $85,000 for “data scientists” skilled at analyzing and interpreting data. 

Dr. Ryan Otter, biology professor, director of the Data Science Institute
Dr. Ryan Otter
Dr. Lisa Green, associate professor, mathematical sciences; director, data science undergraduate program
Dr. Lisa Green

Led by Dr. Ryan Otter, director of the Data Science Institute, and associate professor Lisa Green, director of the data science undergraduate program, the university’s data science program recently received approval to launch a master’s degree program this fall. It will complement data science’s incorporation into MTSU’s doctoral program in computational science and its certificate program launched a few years ago.

“The graduation of these three students is a significant milestone for the undergraduate data science program,” Green said. “We are so proud that our graduates are at such a high standard. These students will represent MTSU well.”

“MTSU invested early into data science, and now with the launching of the M.S. degree, we are very excited to offer the full array of academic programs so students and professionals be trained at all levels, from B.S. degrees to graduate certificates to Ph.D.’s in data science,” Otter said.

‘Hot field … lot of opportunity’

MTSU spring 2022 graduates Musa Touray, left, of Nashville, Tenn., and David Jean of Franklin, Tenn., acknowledge their achievement as two of the first three graduates of the university’s new undergraduate data science program before the May 7 commencement ceremony at Murphy Center. Not pictured is fellow spring 2022 data science graduate Kevin Smalley of Franklin, Tenn. (Submitted photo)

Nashville and the Midstate are home to a litany of health care and financial services companies, logistics and similar industries that rely on data. One such industry is logistics behemoth Amazon, which has offered Touray an operational manager’s position that he’s considering, along with other offers facilitated through a talent recruitment agency.

Touray said he likes the interdisciplinary nature of data science because it encompasses a convergence of computer science, statistics and business.

“For me, it’s all about history. When you go to high school, and they give you a history class, the reason they teach you that is to know where you’re going,” said Touray, whose degree included a business intelligence cognate with a minor in statistics. “Because if you don’t where you’re from you will not know where you’re headed. That’s what data is all about.”

Fellow graduate Jean, who also earned his bachelor’s in data science with a business intelligence cognate, transferred to MTSU from Columbia State Community College as an information systems major. Upon learning of the university’s creation of the full data science major, “it just seemed like a logical step,” he said.

“It’s a hot field with a lot of opportunity, and I felt it was a good time to hop on that boat,” he said, adding that MTSU professors and advisors “really help you get a degree that’s highly customizable and that’s a perfect fit for you. The faculty have been great and really supportive of the program.”

Jean is continuing a paid internship at the Data Science Institute this summer and will start the university’s new master’s degree program in data science in the fall. He said pursuing his master’s will help him determine whether he wants to move into industry or continue his education with a doctorate. 

Touray said he’s been accepted into MTSU’s graduate program in business intelligence and plans to start taking classes this year while he continues to work full time.

Smalley also is excited about his prospects in the job market. He’s searching for full-time employment and said he prefers to stay in the Southeast if possible but is open “to wherever I can get a cool job.” 

Setting a standard

Kevin Smalley, spring 2022 graduate, data science bachelor's (Submitted photo)
Kevin Smalley

Smalley came to MTSU as a transfer student from the University of Alabama, where he was majoring in electrical engineering.

While that turned out not to be the right major for him, he said he enjoyed his statistics classes and some of his computer science classes. Data science “was a good marriage of both,” he said, adding that he’s drawn to the idea of a data scientist being able to identify trends that could, for example, help a company run its operations more efficiently.

Smalley said undergraduate program director Green has been “super helpful” with course advice. He added that he and his fellow inaugural graduates are “hopefully setting a good standard for incoming freshmen” and encouraged students to discuss their goals and what they hope to gain from the program with professors.

Smalley has been involved with the MTSU Data Science Club as community liaison and has helped coordinate interactions with industry professionals, who have shared what they do day to day to give students a better idea of potential career paths within the data science field.

Like his fellow graduates, Smalley said that MTSU professors and instructors seem to take student feedback seriously in helping fine-tune a new program and allowing a broader selection of electives for students with varying interests.

Spring 2022 data science program graduate David Jean, third from left in tie, poses for a group photo in the Science Building atrium with members of MTSU's Data Science Club who participated in the November 2021 Deep Racer event, a partnership between the MTSU Data Science Institute and Amazon Web Services in which MTSU students and area high school students programmed and raced autonomous vehicles. (MTSU file photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
Spring 2022 data science program graduate David Jean, third from left in tie, poses for a group photo in the Science Building atrium with members of MTSU’s Data Science Club who participated in the November 2021 Deep Racer event, a partnership between the MTSU Data Science Institute and Amazon Web Services in which MTSU students and area high school students programmed and raced autonomous vehicles. (MTSU file photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

Like Smalley, Jean said program director Green “is always going out of her way to make sure students are taking classes that are a good fit for us.”

A founder and president of the Data Science Club, Jean praised Otter’s work through the Data Science Institute that provides students with supplemental activities, such as the Amazon Web Services “Deep Racer” event last fall that brought together various teams to see who could program the best autonomously driven model race cars.

“I just want to take what I’ve learned from this to be a role model for future students to show them that it’s tough, but it’s doable,” he said. “I would encourage them to get involved on campus and take full advantage of all the resources MTSU has to offer!”

An overhead view shows the race track used at the Nov. 13 “AWS DeepRacer” event held in the MTSU Science Building Atrium. The event, which featured five teams racing autonomous racing models, was sponsored by the MTSU Data Science Institute and Amazon Web Services. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
An overhead view shows the race track used at the Nov. 13 “AWS DeepRacer” event held in the MTSU Science Building Atrium. The event, which featured five teams racing autonomous racing models, was sponsored by the MTSU Data Science Institute and Amazon Web Services. (MTSU file photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

Growing professional field, program

Touray said ongoing technological advances are leading to an exponential increase in the amount of data being generated and collected across many industries, so “you need to people who know how to work with it and analyze it.”

Whether it’s in medicine or in technology, data helps businesses understand where they have been so they can make informed decisions and develop strategies about the present and the future, he said. 

“For you to be successful in any market, you have to understand who your customers are. What do they want? How did they like your product? You have to be able to analyze those things. Data science is such a growing field because of the need for businesses to better understand who their customers are and how to meet their needs.”

Touray received significant financial assistance through the Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or TSLAMP, with the help of Mimi Thomas, program director for MTSU.

The program provides scholarships and research stipends to qualifying students to increase the participation of underrepresented students in STEM disciplines and professions.

Touray recalled taking a course taught by Dr, Scott Seipel, associate professor of information systems and analytics, and looking at data sets from a financial institution in hopes of understanding the level of customer satisfaction. By using coding to develop predictive models to analyze the data, institutions may be able to identify specific customers more likely to move to another institution.

From left, MTSU spring 2022 graduates Kevin Smalley and David Jean of Franklin, Tenn., and Musa Touray of Nashville, Tenn., are the first three graduates of the university’s new undergraduate data science program. (Submitted photo)
MTSU spring 2022 graduates Kevin Smalley, left, and David Jean of Franklin, Tenn., and Musa Touray of Nashville, Tenn., are the first three graduates of the university’s new undergraduate data science program. (Submitted photo)

Smalley said the growing collection of information through internet usage means massive amounts of data is constantly accumulating, “but most businesses simply don’t know what to do with it … and they just store it.”

From sports analytics to location analytics to data mining to numerous other data-focused jobs, Smalley said the opportunities in the field seem almost endless.

Touray agrees.

“There are a lot of opportunities. Businesses know, that within every organization, data is what really drives them,” he said. “A lot of businesses have this data, but they don’t know what to do with it, so they need people with this skill set.” 

For more information about MTSU’s Data Science Program, visit www.mtsu.edu/datascience or email datascience@mtsu.edu.

— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)

In this 2019 file photo, Dr. Lisa Green, center, associate professor of mathematical sciences and current director of the data science undergraduate program, works with students Dylan Lien, left, and Ola Adeniyi during a lab session. (MTSU file photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

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