Preparing the Next Generation of Data Scientists

What does a student conducting research for Google have in common with a graduate researcher in a perovskite research group who’s also taking part in a statistical consulting project for a pharmaceutical company? They’re both Cal State Fullerton students participating in exciting, interdisciplinary research underway at the Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM).

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“The underlying theme of all projects at CCAM is computation,” explains Sam Behseta, director of CCAM and professor of mathematics. “Massive amounts of increasingly complicated data are being generated across every field, and the computational tools to analyze this data are becoming more complex. Without good modeling approaches and a deep understanding of how to effectively utilize these tools, this data is hard to use. Students learning these computational methods as part of their scientific studies become better prepared and more appealing job candidates.”

There are more than 2.7 million job openings for data scientists in the United States, and that number is expected to grow. Recognizing that, CCAM is helping ensure the Cal State Fullerton students who come through its labs understand modeling and can write efficient code and algorithms. Whether they’re heading straight into industry or pursuing advanced degrees, graduates with those skills are in high demand.

Even before they graduate, students are taking advantage of unique opportunities available to them because of this training.

Juan Cabrera, a senior mathematics major and computer science minor, was accepted to the Computer Science Research Mentorship Program at Google.

“I am working with Google to develop a research project with a focus on machine learning,” says Cabrera. “Google is also sponsoring my attendance at the Thirty-Fourth AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence in New York, and in June I will be presenting my research at Google headquarters in Mountain View.”

An aspiring data scientist, Cabrera says seminars sponsored by CCAM in python and R have been very useful in his research and career preparation, and he has appreciated the support and mentorship from Behseta and Allyson Fry-Petit, assistant professor of analytical and materials chemistry. He is working with them on machine learning for perovskite classification and prediction.

“I believe it is important for every institution to have collaborative efforts to support students in these cutting-edge data science endeavors,” Cabrera says.

Sam Behseta, professor of mathematics, Allyson Fry-Petit, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and their team of undergraduate students are using machine learning to better understand materials used to make solar panels and predict how they will perform.

Enhancing Corporate Partnerships

Chanel Lee, a second-year applied mathematics master’s student, is a member of the perovskite research group and is also involved in a statistical consulting project for a pharmaceutical company.

“Real-world experience is valuable to all students, whether we’re going into academia or the job market,” says Lee, who plans to become a college professor and is currently applying to doctoral programs. “This type of research and consulting is an opportunity to work with real data – which tends to be messy. I’ve learned more about the pharmaceutical industry and how its data operates.”

This work is part of CCAM’s new Statistical Consulting Unit, part of its Corporate Partners Program.

“We are looking to partner with local companies to provide students hands-on learning opportunities that prepare them for the workforce, build the capacity of CCAM, and fuel the pipeline of qualified talent,” says Behseta.

CCAM offers three tiers of corporate partnership opportunities, based on a company’s desired level of engagement with students and faculty on projects related to statistics or data analytics.

“I believe it is important for every institution to have collaborative efforts to support students in these cutting-edge data science endeavors.”

Juan Cabrera, senior mathematics major and computer science minor

A corporate partner may choose to participate in an undergraduate class project, through which CCAM will partner with the organization to develop a scope of work that aligns with the educational outcomes of the class, while providing mentoring and networking opportunities for students. Or, a company may partner with CCAM for a student team industry project, where CCAM will build a team of undergraduate and/or graduate students who will work on a project. A corporate partner can also choose a faculty research project, for which expert CCAM faculty will lead highly complex or technical research projects issued by the company.

Corporate partners that have worked with CCAM faculty and/or students in the past include the RAND Corporation, Cox Communications, Spectrum Pharmaceuticals, L3 Technologies, Black Swan Data, and Black Forest Seven. CCAM’s Corporate Partners’ Statistical Consulting program is supervised by internationally recognized statisticians with expertise in Bayesian statistics, statistical and machine learning, design of experiments, and computational statistics. The program includes applied mathematics and statistics graduate students as well as undergraduate students majoring in mathematics. CCAM researchers write code in Python, R, C, SAS, and MATLAB, and they have access to a major computing cluster right in the CCAM facility.

“Our vision is to get students to work directly on industry projects that are current, important, and real, with well-defined deadlines, deliverables, reports, and presentations,” says Behseta. “That way, students get to experience all activities that go into creating research and presenting it in a comprehensive and understandable way.”

A Reliable Resource for Students and Society

Behseta says that the expanded Corporate Partners Program’s diverse project opportunities will allow CCAM to increase research collaborations throughout the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics and the University.

CCAM has already partnered with the local chapter of the American Statistical Association and UCLA’s Statistical Consulting Group to ensure it is offering the most effective program to corporate collaborators.

“Our mission is to be able to provide computational support to anyone who needs it at any given moment,” says Behseta. “Along those lines, we’re reaching out to all new hires to encourage them to be part of our interdisciplinary research community.”

The CCAM-maintained computer cluster continues to be constantly in demand, and Behseta says CCAM plans to eventually expand its physical infrastructure – adding another cluster or two – as well as its educational seminars and workshops.

“I think what distinguishes CCAM, and Cal State Fullerton, is that students’ research supervisors truly become their mentors,” he adds. “Students enjoy hanging out in the lab. They look to their professors as role models, learning everything from scientific foundations, to how to put together a manuscript, to how to handle balancing their personal and professional life. This is a new phase for our center, and we’re very excited that our college and dean are so supportive of CCAM and its goals.”

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