Smith Introduces Statistical and Data Sciences Program in Partnership With Mount Holyoke

Trang Le '17

Contributing Writer

Over the past 18 months, faculty from various departments including mathematics, computer science, psychology, government and economics have been working on developing a program that will enhance the study of these fields for Smith students. So far, Smith has had 11 students graduate with a minor in statistics and data sciences. The program needs to expand because the enrollment for introductory courses is rising and so students interested in data science can delve into more advanced courses. Data science is a relatively new field offering skills that are highly recommended for students across disciplines, from natural sciences to the humanities.

Professor Charles Staelin is a member of the economics department who is currently directing the expansion of these programs. Staelin shared his thoughts on the potential impact of this program on current Smith students: “We hoped that it would not only attract students at the introductory level who see the value of statistics in their future lives and careers, but [also] allow those majoring in fields where statistics have become essential to take upper-level courses that their major departments do not have the capacity to provide. We hoped, therefore, that it would bring in students from all across the curriculum.”

The application of data science in economics is easily seen through behavioral studies of this field.

“As we pay more attention to actual behaviors, these data can tell us how firms and individuals make decisions within the complex world they face rather than the simplified worlds of traditional theory,” Staelin said. Becoming a data scientist incorporates quantitative, programming and communications skills. Besides the technical knowledge, a data scientist needs an ability to explain the meaning of data to a layperson.

“It’s a field that starts by asking questions: What issues do you care about? What problems do you want to understand and solve? Now use the tools of computer modeling and statistical analysis to answer them,” explained Katherine Rowe, Smith’s provost.

This change in Smith’s curriculum will take a step towards swaying current gender inequality in data science and other STEM fields where women are underrepresented. Only 28 percent of women graduated with high distinction in mathematics and computer science majors, according to data from 2010. In her article “Women in Data Science are Invisible. We Can Change That,” Claudia Perlich stated one of her reasons for women’s negligible appearance in this field: many excellent women choose to enter academia, but “the problem with data science in academia is that’s not where the magic happens.” According to Perlich, opportunities line up at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, “where the richest data and most interesting problems are – and it’s not accessible to most academics.”

With the assistance of MassMutual, Smith will have two visiting faculty members join the program for four years. Mount Holyoke College will also be hiring new faculty, and through the two schools’ partnership, students can take classes on both campuses and delve into areas that interest them.

“MassMutual believes that by partnering with these two institutions, we can develop a pipeline of dynamic, smart women data scientists that will benefit MassMutual as well as other companies in the Pioneer Valley and beyond,” said Gareth Ross, senior vice president of MassMutual. The program at the two women’s colleges is in relation with MassMutual’s Data Science Development Program in Amherst, which started last August. “This effort furthers MassMutual’s commitment to the advancement of data science, with a particular emphasis on building a critical mass of this talent in the five-college area,” Ross added.

“It’s a rare thing to be part of an emerging field or profession – to help define a new kind of job that could change how an organization or a field does its work,” Rowe added. With data sets available not only to big firms such as Google or Amazon, but also to smaller firms, the statistical work needed will increase tremendously, hinting at various opportunities for Smith’s graduates who complete this program. Besides helping students thrive in their careers, this invaluable set of skills will also allow them to do meaningful work in interdisciplinary endeavors, as expressed by Crystal Ong ’17, a government major interested in data science: “I believe that data, if used effectively, can help save lives.”