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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry February 12, 2015

In Demand: Smith Earns Grant from MassMutual for New Data Science Program

Data on a computer screen

Beginning this fall, Smith students interested in the emerging field of data science – which deals with the extraction of knowledge from big data—will have an opportunity to study the topic in depth through a new Women in Data Science collaboration with Mount Holyoke and MassMutual.

For the past 19 months faculty in several departments, including mathematics, computer science, psychology, and economics – have been working to develop a Data Sciences Program.

Thanks to a $2-million, four-year grant from the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Smith will hire two visiting assistant professors to deepen the curriculum in data science. The new faculty will teach in areas such as natural language processing, machine learning, behavioral economics, applied statistics and various computer science specialties. Courses will begin in fall 2015.

Under the terms of the MassMutual grant, a total of five new data science professors will be hired at Smith and Mount Holyoke. As always, Smith students will be able to take classes from faculty at both colleges.

Smith’s provost, Katherine Rowe, noted that the new data science initiative builds on Smith’s existing strengths in science, technology, engineering and math. It also provides Smith students with outstanding opportunities to connect their technical skills directly to real-word challenges and events.

“Data science is a rapidly growing field with many applications in the natural and social sciences, as well as the arts and humanities,” added Charles Staelin, professor of economics. “Smith is a liberal arts college with a strong tradition of educating women in emerging fields of science, mathematics and technology, and so this initiative fits perfectly into our mission and curriculum, potentially involving student and faculty from across the college. It also provides our graduates with increasingly important intellectual and professional skills, and adds significantly to the pool of women available to a field in which they traditionally have been underrepresented.”

The field of data science is increasingly important in the professional world, drawing on statistical methods to answer questions in an array of disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Graduates work in fields ranging from medicine to environmental science, actuarial professions and statistics.

And data science is a field in which women are underrepresented.

That was part of the appeal for MassMutual, said president and CEO Roger Crandall. “This initiative speaks volumes to the importance we place on developing smart, young talent in the emerging field of data science,” he noted. “MassMutual is proud to partner with these two outstanding colleges to further the advancement of women in this exciting and important discipline.”

For MassMutual, the Women in Data Science program is an important step toward developing a team of data scientists in the region. Last August, the company established the Amherst-based MassMutual Data Science Development program, which looks to hire between five and 10 recent graduates annually from top colleges in the fields of math, computer science or statistics. Over a three-year period, the new employees are provided a combination of coursework, applied projects within MassMutual, and training, all of which are the equivalent of a post-graduate degree.

“Our long-term goal is to leverage the already strong programs these schools have in place in math, statistics and computer science,” said Sears Merritt, chief data scientist at MassMutual. “Through our partnership with Mount Holyoke, Smith and other schools in the region, we are confident that the Pioneer Valley will be a tremendous source of young, talented data scientists.”