Competing in a Data-Driven World

$1 Million Gift Strengthens UH Data Science Programs

Data science was an insider’s term a decade ago, describing an emerging discipline charged with making sense of the growing gigabytes of data generated in fields ranging from health care to energy and cybersecurity.

Meagan Carney
See UH Photo Essay

Fast forward to 2019, and everyone is talking about data science. Applications range from facial recognition at ports of entry to lowering the risk of catastrophic failures during offshore oil operations, and with the proliferation of connected devices – the internet of things – making sense of it all has become increasingly complex.

Demand is growing at the University of Houston and other schools, from students who want to study data science, from researchers who produce, interpret or otherwise work with reams of data, and from industry, which needs a data science-savvy workforce to harness data for solutions to specific problems.

“Data science is important in many fields, from business to engineering to health care,” said Jaspal Subhlok, chairman of the UH Department of Computer Science, which offers a data science track in its master’s degree program. It also is launching a data science capstone course for undergraduate computer science students and data science minor open to students from across the university. “Everybody needs the expertise, a pathway to get enough skills to use in their own fields.”

A $1 million gift from ConocoPhillips to the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) will boost that expertise, funding new faculty positions in the departments of computer science and mathematics, along with fellowships for graduate students with strong data science skills.

“The oil and natural gas industry is evolving in ways that increasingly require ConocoPhillips employees to utilize leading-edge data analytic skills,” said Greg Leveille, chief technology officer of ConocoPhillips and a member of the advisory board for NSM Dean Dan Wells. “The University of Houston is an important source of talent for us, so we’re pleased to provide a gift that will enable the university to further strengthen its ability to teach these skills to students.”

Mathematics professor Jiwen He describes data science as a true multidisciplinary field tied to real-world issues but grounded in mathematics, statistics and machine learning. The Department of Mathematics created a master’s degree in statistics and data science in 2017, and enrollment is growing exponentially.

The ConocoPhillips gift will specifically fund:

  • ConocoPhillips Fellows of Data Science,
  • ConocoPhillips Professor of Practice in Data Science in the Department of Computer Science,
  • ConocoPhillips Data Science Instructional Faculty in the Department of Mathematics, and
  • ConocoPhillips Data Science tenure-track faculty in the Department of Mathematics.

Eloise Brice, vice president for University Advancement, believes this generous gift will send a strong message to current and prospective students. “Through this incredible act of philanthropy, our students will see that UH academics are at the forefront of advancing disciplines,” she said. “This positions UH as a formidable competitor in higher education.”

Jiwen He notes that the math department’s master’s degree in statistics and data science started with six students, three of whom had previously earned a PhD. Enrollment more than quadrupled, to 26 students, by last fall. The department also offers a data science concentration at the undergraduate level.

“Students think data science is the future,” he said. “The field is still evolving. Data is everywhere, and with 5G, we are going to get more data intensive.”

The classes, too, are intensive, requiring both additional faculty and additional graduate teaching assistants and peer mentors. Subhlok notes that the ability to provide adequate student support – in the form of individual and group tutoring and mentoring – has been the biggest roadblock to meeting student demand.

Workforce demand for strong data science skills is driving student interest, but He said it also has made it more difficult to retain faculty. The ConocoPhillips funding will make the academic jobs more competitive, he said.

That, in turn, will allow the departments to serve more students.

“Our students are interested,” Subhlok said. “We want to give them a pathway to become experts in data science.”

- Jeannie Kever, University Media Relations