#UMMCGrad19: First SOPH grads dig into data
Published on Thursday, May 23, 2019
By: Karen Bascom
The Department of Data Science will have its first graduates walking at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s 2019 Commencement ceremony May 24, but none of them are leaving campus just yet.
The three students – also the first graduates from the John D. Bower School of Population Health – will each earn a master of science in biostatistics and data science, then continue to complete a Ph.D. in the same field. They all came from different academic and work backgrounds, which speaks to the broad appeal – and application – of data science.
Shamsed Mahmud studied computer science and engineering in Bangladesh, then worked in the country’s civil service and taught at a military institute. Ready for a change, he came to the United States and earned a Master of Science in Computer Engineering at Florida International University in Miami.
“I took a data science class during my studies there, and I thought this was a field I could do well in,” Mahmud said. “The job prospects are strong in this field. You can work in government, business or health care with a data science background.”
While traditional statistics programs are commonplace at United States universities, data science programs are scarcer. Most are affiliated with business or engineering departments, but UMMC’s Department of Data Science is unique in its connection and emphasis on health and medicine. Each student completes and internship and conducts dissertation research in collaboration with UMMC faculty.
For instance, Mahmud worked with Dr. Jeannette Simino, assistant professor of data science, studying plasma amyloid-beta, the peptides involved in forming the amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s disease.
Xiaoqian (Jenna) Zhu earned a business degree in China before working for an oil company and China’s Food and Drug Administration, working with data visualization tools for product quality and analysis.
Depending on if you use simple descriptive statistics or complex data analysis, “data can tell different stories,” Zhu said. And by better understanding and interpreting these stories, “we can make a contribution to human well-being.”
Zhu has been working on developing data tools and collaborating with the MIND Center to study their cohort data.
A combination of statistics, computer science, mathematics and visualization, data science aims to turn vast amounts of data into actionable evidence.
“It’s fascinating to use the tools I learned in statistical theory in a practical way,” said Md. Mohiuddin Adnan, whose interest in using statistics to “find truth” to help improve human health and health policy drew him to UMMC’s program. “Data science is a huge resource, especially for public health.”
Also from Bangladesh, Adnan studied statistics at the University of Dhaka and public health at Georgia Southern University. At UMMC, he’s been working on projects with clinical trials professionals.
“We are not just students in this program, We are researchers that are part of a team,” Adnan said. “The faculty here are friendly and help a lot.”
Established in 2016, the School of Population Health enrolled Adnan, Mahmud and Zhu among its first five students in fall 2017. The school’s program in Biostatistics and Data Science now has 10 M.S. and Ph.D. candidates, with more matriculating in the fall.
Just as these student’s paths to biostatistics and data science are different, so are their weekends.
Zhu said she “can spend a whole day at Lowe’s” looking for clematis and impatiens to bring home to her porch-garden. Mahmud enjoys watching science documentaries, and he and his wife enjoy the pace of life in Jackson compared to Miami. Adnan stays active by playing soccer and tennis at Winner’s Circle Park in Flowood.
“This group of students is incredibly hard-working,” said Dr. Seth Lirette, assistant professor of data science and graduate program director. “They’ve learned a lot of great skills so far and are on track to accomplish big things moving forward.”
In terms of career opportunities, salary and job satisfaction, data science and related careers have consistently ranked “best job” lists fields over the last five years, Lirette said.
“Data is the new oil: It can make you rich, or it can make a mess. Our goal is to teach our students how to harness the power of data,” he said.
And with the rise of electronic medical records, the advent of health-tracking phone applications, and creation of powerful technologies to help study human genomics and proteomics, data is more important than ever. Not to build wealth, but to build health.