MTSU’s Dr. Ryan Otter discusses the data science institute
MTSU Biology Professor Ryan Otter, Director of the Data Science Institute, inspects one of the model runners who would compete in the Nov. 13 “AWS DeepRacer” event to be held in the atrium of the MTSU Science Building. The event, which featured five teams piloting autonomous racing models, was sponsored by the MTSU Data Science Institute and Amazon Web Services. (MTSU Photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
Data is becoming an area of focus for businesses and universities. By educating students about the growing field of data science, MTSU’s Data Science Institute (DSI) provides future data scientists with experience in data collection and analysis.
Dr. Ryan Otter is the Director of CIO at MTSU. He sympathizes with anyone trying to pin down data science with an exhaustive definition.
“I sort of bundle together data science, analytics, predictive modeling, artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning… It all comes down to one really big picture for me,” said Dr. Otter told Murfreesboro Voice. “Who is ‘How do you convert complex things into actionable things?'”
Dr. Otter’s background is actually in biology. He is a pollution specialist (“ecotoxicologist”) who uses data science to study chemical pollution affecting different places. He says data science plays a vital role in his work.
“If you have all the data from the best sites in the world, but you can’t analyze it to act on it, what do you have?” asks Dr. Otter.
The academic leap from environmental science to data science as a whole could feel like a huge career transition. For Dr. Otter, it was a chance to double down on the fundamentals. Data science is set to transform multiple industries In the years to come. Because it is a relatively new technological discipline, specialists who have used data science for their own work have now become the experts for widespread data science training.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that any university in America – or the world, for that matter – had a computer science department, right? Before the mid-1970s, computers didn’t even exist. Data science didn’t exist until about five or six years ago,” says Dr. Otter. “So no one is trained and developed in data science! We all come from these strange pockets of space, of frustration in our own domains. Ten years from now, we’ll have all these products of students getting degrees in data science. It’s really going to change the landscape, the same way computing changed the landscape in the mid-1970s.”
Dr. Otter says data science tools used to be inaccessible to those outside of certain industries. Data science first crept into the workforce through the financial industry. People who want to outsmart the performance of certain markets have popularized these tools. Marketers have turned to these financial assistants using data science and applied it to their own businesses through predictive algorithms to anticipate consumer behavior. The healthcare industry was next to embrace data science. For health care, the information could be applied in ways that extend to larger populations or focus on an individual’s parameters.
“All of these areas have one thing in common. They are extremely well funded,” says Dr. Otter.
These sectors have spent 25 years funding data science, helping to democratize the technology by making it cheaper. This accessibility has enormously developed data science, which means that anyone with a smartphone can now create and/or collect data. Small businesses, for example, can now access tools that were once only available to wealthier competitors.
Dr Otter says: “It boils down to a lot of data science tools – analytical tools that were first and foremost developed at a high price in an essentially proprietary way -[are] now open-source with free availability…including those we train our employees on. It wasn’t even possible until recently.
If “data” seems like a vague term, it’s because the definition of “data” can vary from entity to entity. It is also useful to think of “data” as the raw material collected. For the purposes of data science, “information” is the contextualized data assembled to inform decisions.
The relativity of these terms can be confusing to people outside the data science space. Dr. Otter recommends people think about their goals for making sense of data science, as uses vary from case to case.
An example of the differences in data usage can be found in typical business challenges.
A physical business owner can assign a value to something like the average time spent in their store. That same owner may also have an online website that collects information about how long people spend browsing their merchandise.
Regardless of how “data” may be defined, Dr. Otter’s work at DSI prepares students for jobs that use data science. In partnership with public and private sector organizations, the DSI offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs in data science.
“We also have a graduate certificate in data science, which aims to help people who have already graduated from university to come back and learn data skills that they can then apply to any content area they want to enter,” said Dr. Otter. said.
DSI’s current portfolio of work is 75% environmental science, 15% community health, and 10% “other” category work.
Dr. Otter tells Murfreesboro Voice that DSI is gearing up for several exciting projects.
He says, “This summer at MTSU, myself and a few colleagues…we’re actually bringing [high school] students on campus for three weeks. The first week, students receive data science training from our team. The second week, they 3D print and build their own drones and they fly them… to collect data. And then, in the background, we’ll use the data science that we taught them upstream to analyze the data that they collected from their drones. »
Dr. Otter adds that this project, which received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will combine interdisciplinary efforts between DSI and MTSU’s agriculture and aerospace departments.
For more information on MTSU’s Data Science Institute, be sure to visit its website.