‘An emerging discipline:’ UTEP unveils new data science degree

Dr. Amy Wagler, the doctoral program's new director, said field is in 'extremely high demand.'

Bell+Hall+houses+the+Department+of+Mathematical+Sciences.

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Bell Hall houses the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Sasha Minjarez, Contributor

UTEP’s new data science doctoral degree program is expected to be in full swing by the fall 2021 semester, opening up a slew of opportunities for students and the El Paso community.

“This is so important for UTEP,” said Dr. Amy Wagler, the program’s new director and associate chair of UTEP’s Department of Mathematical Sciences. “I saw that there were so many students who were interested in this career and it’s a limiting factor if you don’t have the opportunities to do something you really feel passionate about.”

The program was approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) on July 22 and will be first presented to students in the form of a soft launch next semester in the spring through the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

After the idea was initially introduced four years ago, the mathematics department led by its dean, Dr. Robert Kirken, began reaching out to various organizations, business leaders, and government officials in the community to ascertain the demand for data science professionals in the area.

The Borderplex Alliance, a non-profit economic development group, was one of the many organizations contacted.

“The response was pretty consistent across most organizations which was, we have a need for data science, but we don’t really have access,” Wagler said. “We realized at that point that there was an urgent need to produce a pipeline for data science professionals in our region to fulfill an industry.”

“That was a big part of the drive; to offer this as an option for students while also addressing a big need in our community. We can create this kind of homegrown talent,” Wagler said.

The program went through several stages to get to where it is today.

The idea was first presented to the department to seek faculty approval, which it got. Then, it sought administrative approval along with approval from the College of Science and the graduate school until the program was finally given the green light by THECB.

But an unavoidable adjustment for the program will likely be to roll it out mostly virtually because of the pandemic.

The program was made possible through the efforts and unwavering support of the College of Science, Wagler said. Generous donations of initial support were also made by highly recognized UTEP alumni and members of the College of Science Advisory Board like Allen Gilmer and Frank Hsu who without them, Wagler said “would not have been achievable.”

Wagler characterizes data science as “an emerging discipline that combines mathematics, statistics, and computing to develop and apply methodology to solve problems in data driven industries.”

She explained that data science professionals work primarily in high-level positions in both the public and private sector in interdisciplinary teams to arrive to data-informed conclusions. There is also a monumental amount of uses for which this degree can be made applicable, Wagler added.

According to the Occupational Employment Statistics, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a doctorate in data science can be applied to an array of industries which includes, but is certainly not limited to, computer systems design, enterprise management, scientific research and development services, aerospace product and parts manufacturing, securities, commodity contracts, and financial investment related activities.

The site reveals that the average salary of a data scientist is $123,000 and that the demand for the profession is projected to increase by 16% in less than ten years.

Wagler said that local businesses such as Helen of Troy also employ data scientists within their marketing department.

Data science can even be used to get users to frequent applications like Uber by collecting device data and devising statistical models in order to provide the company with strategic solutions.

Statistical models even have relevance within the medical field to determine patient treatment options, so it is quite safe to say that the degree is patently universal and highly indispensable in this increasingly data-centric society we live in, Wagler explained.

“Having skills that are relevant to that kind of society are going to open doors for you. It is a fun, interesting, and engaging field. It’s a career choice that I really hope people will consider for the future,” Wagler said.

The acquisition of the doctoral program will require a total of 67 hours, 21 of which are dedicated to elective courses to allow for flexibility, six to the dissertation, and 21 for residency or collaborative research work. The program has fostered existing partnerships that students can coordinate with to perform their collaborative research and also have the data analytics lab at their disposal.

The courses will fall under four primary areas; data science theory, data science application, mathematical applications, and computing. Courses will commence with a prerequisite introductory course called Introduction to Data Science Collaboration.

What the department is still estimating is whether the courses will be instructed fully online or in hybrid form, but Wagler said the pandemic has already accelerated the program’s online development.

She said that businesses are already exhibiting early interest in the program for supplemental employee training.

A new computer lab will be used to conduct the new graduate program as well, but whether or not face-to-face instruction will be feasible for the long term is subject to confirmation.

“I think this is going to connect UTEP and highlight the resources that we have to do data intensive research. This is a field that’s in extremely high demand and I think that it’ll put UTEP on the map as a place where we are training high-level, competent professionals in data science. We have students who have talent in this area and just lacked opportunity,” Wagler said.

Sasha Minjarez may be reached at [email protected]