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UW Launches New Data Science Center on Campus

February 20, 2019
stream through woods
Snowmelt runs in Cabin Creek, a tributary of Shell Creek, in the Bighorn Mountains. Annual information on snowpack, together with historical data and annual weather patterns, can be used to make predictions about snowmelt and anticipated water availability. This is the type of scientific issue the new UW Data Science Center on campus has the resources to support. (Alex Buerkle Photo)

As one of the primary repositories for Wyoming’s climate data, the Water Resources Data System (WRDS) and the Wyoming State Climate Office -- both housed at the University of Wyoming -- provide annual information on snowpack that, together with historical data and annual weather patterns, can be used to make predictions about snowmelt and anticipated water availability.

While this real-world example is something most Wyoming residents can appreciate, it also is the type of scientific issue the new UW Data Science Center on campus has the resources to support.

The Data Science Center was established in late September, and Alex Buerkle, a UW professor in the Department of Botany, was named its first director. The center will help educate and provide tools for analysis for undergraduate students up through faculty, and create unprecedented opportunities for students to engage in the cutting edge of data science.

“With snowpack and other types of data, we learn from past years and use that to predict the future,” Buerkle says. “We learn from the data to make predictions.”

The timing of snowpack melt-out in the arid western United States has a strong influence on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, including fish and wildlife habitat, fire potential and soil erosion; and economic sectors, such as agriculture, municipalities and reservoir operations, says Christopher Nicholson, director of WRDS, which is not part of the Data Science Center.

“Snowpack acts as a natural reservoir in many of the driest Western states and, in Wyoming, delayed snowpack melt-out sustains rivers, streams and man-made reservoir levels late into the water year,” Nicholson says. “Since Wyoming serves as the headwaters to major river basins, water in the form of snowpack also is critical for downstream states that rely on late-season snowmelt for their water supply.”

For UW students, Buerkle sees gaining experience solving science problems, such as predicting snowmelt, as a skill that translates into solving business or other scientific problems.

Bolstering Faculty, Coursework

Five new faculty members who will focus on data science were hired this past fall through hiring initiatives led by UW Provost Kate Miller. The assistant professors are Ping Zhong and Pavel Chernyavskiy, both from mathematics and statistics; Mike Borowczak, computer science; Teng Zhang, accounting and finance; and Joseph Holbrook, from the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“It is great that the provost was able to prioritize data science in hiring faculty in three colleges and the Haub School,” Buerkle says. “The center and these hires should be valuable to workforce development for the state, and are related to strong research programs.”

Buerkle described the Data Science Center as having been launched as part of a $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to UW, of which he is a co-principal investigator. The grant invested in computer hardware that is part of the high-performance computing cluster known as Teton, which is part of the Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC), located in the IT Building.

Approximately $4 million of the five-year grant is related to data science on campus and to outreach in the state.

“The training we are doing is really broad. While the grant, overall, is about microbial ecology, we are interested in researchers with any application of data science,” Buerkle says. “It is good for the state and the university to know we are training students to get over the initial hurdles and impediments associated with doing productive analysis.”

The grant was among five announced in September 2017 through NSF’s EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program, which supports efforts to enhance research, science and mathematics education, and workforce development. The award comes on the heels of another five-year, $20 million NSF grant in 2012 -- at the time, the largest research grant in UW history -- that stimulated wide-ranging research into Wyoming’s water resources.

While the Data Science Center has no plans to create and offer a data science major, it does want to create data science educational opportunities for students in existing majors offered at UW. These could include courses in statistics, botany, zoology and physiology, business, journalism and through the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, Buerkle says.

“One of the goals of the Data Science Center is to become a clearinghouse for courses; to create an umbrella,” he adds. “Potentially, we could add a data science certificate to add on to majors down the road.”

A practicum course is already part of the curriculum, in which a business client with scientific data has a team of UW students act as consultants to solve a real-world problem.

“We can train students in analysis of science data. We know it will translate to other settings,” Buerkle says. “The center is for all of UW and campus, not just for the work associated with the microbes. Data science is dedicated to solving problems in business and science using statistics and computers.”

Gaining Practical Experience

WEST Inc., a Laramie business that provides environmental and statistical consulting services, is a partner in the data science components of the NSF grant. WEST Inc. hired three UW students for internships last summer to help with its data science needs on certain client projects.

“Data science is the hot major of our generation,” says Trent McDonald, senior project manager with WEST Inc. “It is a great time to be a statistician. It is a great time to be a data scientist. The average person is realizing the power of data and data analysis, and how that impacts your life.”

During her internship, Abby Hoffman, a Ph.D. student in the Program in Ecology from Lexington, Mass., analyzed counts collected by aboriginal trackers at a wildlife preserve in central Africa. Hoffman conducted what is known as a “distance sampling” analysis in which counts are adjusted for variation in initial sighting distance. Hoffman’s analysis formed the basis of a grant proposal seeking additional funds for the aboriginal trackers.

Michael Kleinsasser, a statistics major from Bismarck, N.D., conducted analyses of bat mortalities at industrial wind power facilities during his internship, and contributed to open-source software packages maintained by WEST Inc. The software packages to which Kleinsasser contributed are available worldwide and downloaded more than 100 times a day.

Another intern, Caleb Whitman, a computer science major from Laramie who graduated from UW in spring 2018, wrote software to process and make maps from unmannned aerial vehicle (UAV or common drone) photography collected on Aleutian tern nesting colonies in Alaska. Whitman also developed methods to process and summarize past weather forecasts in the Midwest.

McDonald says WEST Inc. was conducting data science analytics long before Google popularized the profession, and sees Laramie as a viable destination for more data science analysis companies to set up shop.

“It is a pressing need in the workforce to have people trained in the area of data science,” Buerkle says. “It’s important for use in agronomy, such as crop yields, medicine and calculating risk as an insurance agency.”

“One of the opportunities we’re giving students is to interact with data scientists who work in nonacademic settings,” Buerkle continues. “One person we met with, it’s his job to use bank transaction records and computer models to help catch people who are money laundering.”

McDonald described the new Data Science Center as “fantastic” and “definitely a step in the right direction.” McDonald and his wife, Mary -- both UW graduates -- recently made a $300,000 gift to the UW Foundation. The gift will support the research and educational activities of the Data Science Center.

“Hopefully, it’s an anchoring donation. Hopefully, people at the university will see people outside the university are serious about this,” McDonald says. “The Data Science Center is a good thing, and we need it. It’s a place where students can focus their studies and then come out with a clear certification in data science.”

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