Masters in Data Science - University of Alabama - Birmingham's Approach

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The QuantCrunch – Higher Education’s Response

burningglassquantcrunchIn 2017 IBM, in collaboration with Glassdoor and the Business Higher Education Forum, published “The Quant Crunch: How the Demand for Data Science Skills is Disrupting the Job Market”. The authors of the report suggested that

“Data democratization impacts every career path, so academia must strive to make data literacy an option, if not a requirement, for every student in any field of study… Higher education needs to be nimble and responsive, and its bachelor’s, graduate, certificate, and executive level programs have to be responsive to workforce needs.”

In our series “The QuantCrunch - Higher Education’s Response” we’re exploring the diverse and often, newly minted, higher education programs to find out just how universities are preparing the next generation of advanced analytics professionals.


A New Masters in Data Science Degree Program Launches at UAB-Birmingham This Fall

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QuantHub is always looking to understand how great data scientists are made and what skill sets are relevant today and in the future. This time we had to look no further than in our own backyard here in Birmingham at the University of Alabama. We were fortunate to have an insightful conversation about these topics with Dr. Yuliang Zheng, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Dr. Zheng has been instrumental in creating the university’s new Master’s in Data Science degree program, which will see its inaugural class begin this fall.

We chatted with Dr. Zheng in his office in the brand new University Hall about what it takes to create a cutting edge master’s program, what value he sees for students pursuing this kind of program, how industries will benefit, opportunities after graduation and more. Following is a summary of our discussion.

The Father of Signcryption

Dr. Zheng joined UAB as Chair of its Computer Science department in 2015. Drawing upon his previous experience at UNC Charlotte, Dr. Zheng has been working since his arrival to help UAB create interdisciplinary degree programs including the Master’s in Data Science (MSDS). 

Dr. Zheng is a cybersecurity expert. He is widely known as the father of signcryption technology, which is now an ISO international standard for cybersecurity. He’s also known internationally as an expert of cryptography and network security. It’s thus fitting that he is Chair of a university department that also houses two degree programs in cybersecurity, a relative rarity in the university world.

Applicant Profiles for the Master’s in Data Science Program

Dr. Zheng was amazed at the number of applicants to the MSDS degree program for its first year. Some 130 candidates applied for the inaugural year. Of its popularity he noted,

“It just goes to show you that it’s the right time.”

In line with our own data from student participation in QuantHub data science challenges, Dr. Zheng told us that 70% of the master’s program students are international students. The rest are largely local, but some also hail from other parts of the country.  A few have even transferred to the Master’s in Data Science program from other UAB degree programs. Most domestic candidates have full time jobs, so many program courses are offered in the evening and some are online.

Master’s in Data Science vs. Master's in Business Analytics

We know from our experience at QuantHub that business people in industry sometimes get confused about the difference between “analytics” and “data science”. Regarding the difference between business analytics and data science, Dr. Zheng explained that for one, the analytics concentration offered by UAB lives in the business school, while the data science degree program lives in the Department of Computer Science. He explained that early on, the two efforts started out as one. Eventually the university decided to split the two to meet the needs of industries.

Data science, he explained, focuses on the more technical subjects such as algorithms, software development and machine learning. Analytics focuses more on the application of data to business.

Creating the Master’s in Data Science Program

Dr. Zheng explained that on the heels of his success helping to create a data science program at UNC Charlotte, he arrived at UAB and noticed that the Computer Science department did not have one. He explained,

“So I said ‘let’s build it’…I stole my own ideas.”

For the first six months Dr. Zheng “knocked on everybody’s door. Everybody.”

In the end, he determined that there was a clear need to have a data science program given Alabama’s current tech and economic boom.

From there it was “a very complex process” he described, made up essentially of two parts. First, the Computer Science Department had to conduct extensive market research. It used Department of Labor data, state-provided data and industry data to try and figure out the particular needs for the market – which Dr. Zheng says is Birmingham and the broader state of Alabama.

He said they met with some challenges during this exercise including the fact that the Department of Labor does not have a standard occupational code for “data scientist”. So Dr. Zheng’s team had to extrapolate from computer science and other industry data to figure out what was needed in the field of data science.

Even though much of the research focused geographically on Alabama, the team also had to look at national and international research because a good number of students come from other parts of the country and abroad. In addition to this research, Dr. Zheng spent a lot of time talking and networking with peers at conferences and within industry and studied the European and Asian markets. From this research exercise he explained,

“We then mapped the needs to justify the program.”

The second part of building the MSDS program he says was “the easy part for us," adding,

"We had a pretty good idea once we set the goals what kind of skills students should master and what should be included in the program.”

It helped that the university also had the resources on campus, with the exception of 2 additional faculty that he had to hire.

Areas of Data Science that UAB Focuses On

UAB1Based on its understanding of market needs, the Department of Computer Science offers four areas of focus: data science, cybersecurity, cyber infrastructure (cloud computing and high-performance computing), and bioinformatics.  “All are very important”, notes Dr. Zheng.

In terms of local industry need, he sees in Birmingham that the healthcare and life science industries have a real need for people who have both a biology and life sciences background as well as a computational                                                                                               background.

Noting this, UAB has created a new undergraduate degree program, a Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics. It also offers bioinformatics as an interdisciplinary theme in its doctoral program. This degree, explained Dr. Zheng, is a joint program between the Department of Computer Science, Department of Biology and the School of Medicine.

Students graduating from this program will have a solid background in biology and medical sciences as well as computer science (statistics, computational science, probability courses, etc.). It’s a four-year program because, as Dr. Zheng emphasized, 

“This kind of specialization takes time to build a solid foundation.”

CS + X – Solving the Lack of Domain Expertise in Data Science

Bioinformatics is an example of the Department of Computer Science’s recognition that industry needs domain experts who also have analytical and computational skills. Dr. Zheng calls this the “CS + X” solution. This means a student can obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science (typically computer science degrees are awarded as a Bachelor of Science) with a focus in a non-technical domain of expertise.

So a student can pursue a computer science degree along with a minor of their choice. It could be entrepreneurship, finance or any other subject. Graduates of the CS+X program will be ready to become a T-shaped professional, meaning that they have been exposed to a broad range of knowledge and skills while mastering sophisticated techniques in computing.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is the first university in the state and possibly the southeastern region of the United States to offer this option. 

At QuantHub we see a great need for this educational option. Clients we have in healthcare and finance are pushing for data literacy throughout the organization. CS + X seems to be a great solution.

What Skills Do Graduates Need for the #Futureofwork?

For this million-dollar question, Dr. Zheng informed us that it’s a big question academics all over are addressing. As for UAB, he explained that the university is in the process of revising its curriculum to address this question. One of the most critical skill sets that the university plans to equip students with is analytical skills. Dr. Zheng emphasized,

“To be employable, to be productive, to be a life-long learner, to be a good citizen, you have to have some analytical skills.”

Dr. Zheng further explained his department’s philosophy about preparing students for the future. “Everyone talks about automation replacing jobs. That’s definitely true.” he admitted, adding, “But you also have to look at the other side of the coin. New jobs will be created, right?" He further elaborated

"So, the question really is: how to get our graduates down the road ready for these new types of jobs - which we don’t know about yet - but they will pop up, right?”

Given the evolution of the job market over the last 5-10 years, we’d have to agree.

How are Data Science and Cybersecurity Related?

cybersecurityBecause Dr. Zheng is a cybersecurity expert and UAB’s two master’s degree programs in data science and cybersecurity are offered under the same roof, we wondered how he sees data science and cybersecurity complementing each other as fields of study. He explained,

"They are closely intertwined. They are 2 sides of the same coin.”

On one hand, AI, machine learning, and data science can be applied to cybersecurity. You can use machine learning as a tool to enhance security, for example. “That area is part of our faculty research,” Dr. Zheng noted.

The other side of the coin is to incorporate cybersecurity tools and knowledge in data science work. Both sides are complementary. At UAB faculty are researching into not only the cybersecurity of data science but also the fairness, attribution and transparency (FAT) aspects of explainable artificial intelligence.

“We have a masters in cybersecurity which is doing very well.”

Dr. Zheng added, noting that cybersecurity students have an opportunity to take courses in machine learning and other areas of data science. The hope is that they develop some understanding about data. Likewise, data science graduate students have opportunities to take cybersecurity courses.

We should note here that cybersecurity, like data science is a field that is experiencing high growth and a subsequent shortage of skills. Surprisingly, many universities do not offer a Master’s in Cybersecurity. When we asked Dr. Zheng about why this is, he informed us that “Lots of universities are trying to get into that. Not many are doing that because there are few available faculty resources (in cybersecurity).” He continued,

“We are lucky to have a pretty good concentration of faculty in cybersecurity and data science. So, we can tell students ‘When you are here, we provide opportunities to do both ‘data skills’ – cybersecurity and data science’.”

Dr. Zheng drew an interesting analogy from the field of cybersecurity to try and explain the dynamics we are currently seeing in the field of data science.

“The way I look at these two disciplines, data science is now experiencing what cybersecurity experienced 20 years ago.”

He continued, “Twenty years ago, companies basically had no clue about cybersecurity, they just grabbed whatever they had. They had to invest. Companies are just like human beings, right? There is the learning curve. You have to invest time and money to understand what this all about and how do you deal with it. Sometimes it takes about 20 years’ time to get comfortable and to understand exactly what you want and what kind of people you need to hire.”

This certainly helps to put the current skills shortage and general confusion about data science in perspective.

What About Other Forms of Data Science Training?

Alternative forms of education seem to be all the rage these days, so we asked Dr. Zheng’s opinion on data science bootcamps and nanodegrees. He suggested that they do have value explaining, “This is not new. Any new area, when it pops up, creates opportunity for everyone like businesses who are training. There’s no difference between this and coding bootcamps.”

Dr. Zheng believes that there is a valid reason for the existence of a lot of online degrees. His thoughts are that

“Jobs are like a pyramid in terms of required training. You have multiple layers of jobs. At the top tier you need a PhD or a Master’s. There are a lot of other jobs where maybe you don’t need a 4-year education.”

He added, “It’s up to individual choice and also up to the companies who want to hire someone to understand exactly what you want because it’s an investment from a company point of view.”

This is good news both for the thousands of data science nanodegree students out there, as well as companies looking to recruit data science talent.

The Master’s in Data Science Degree Difference

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That said, Dr. Zheng noted two clear differences between a Master’s in Data Science and other data science training programs. “The main difference is the educational objective.” He explained that for each program the department must have an educational objective that addresses what students will really want to get out of a program.

“For us there are two key educational objectives. Students will be given the opportunity to learn from professors who are world class experts in data science. They will also have access to the latest and coolest technology for solving real world problems.”

The other key difference he told us, is the focus of student learning and training.

“We hope they will be able to become a lifelong learner.”

He further suggested that “Students should be able to upgrade themselves after coming to us. We want students to learn things from a professor that they cannot learn by themselves. That’s our goal!”

Dr. Zheng further explained that UAB's Masters in Data Science program emphasizes not only the acquisition of  specific technical skills but more importantly the learning of a framework upon which to build specific skills over a lifetime. “Why is this?”, we asked.

He replied, “If someone can learn by themselves there are two possibilities: This (MS in Data Science) course is too easy, or the student is a genius and doesn’t need to come to the university.” He continued,

“Our goal is to help all students, including average students. That’s what society appreciates. It makes our faculty happy when every student becomes a more productive citizen of society.”

Now that’s a valuable degree!


We’d like to thank Dr. Zheng for taking the time to enlighten us on what exactly a Master’s in Data Science can offer. To learn more about the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Master’s in Data Science and other Department of Computer Science degree programs, read more here .

You can also read more about Dr. Zheng on his personal website here.


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