Nfld. & Labrador

Proposed data science program aims to train MUN students in quickly emerging field

A proposed new program at Memorial University aims to provide important training in a new, quickly developing field that could support growth in Newfoundland and Labrador — in the technology sector and beyond.

'Everything is data,' says math and stats department head J.C. Loredo-Osti

Students could be studying data science at Memorial University in the near future if a new masters program is approved. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

A proposed new program at Memorial University aims to provide important training in a new, quickly developing field that could support growth in Newfoundland and Labrador — in the technology sector and beyond.

The proposal from MUN's computer science and math departments is to establish a master of data science program, with courses training students to structure, analyze and process data.

J.C. Loredo-Osti, the head of the university's department of mathematics and statistics, says data science is particularly valuable now, given the volume of data that can be gathered by modern technology.

"Everywhere where we look — biology, engineering — everything is data," Loredo-Osti said.

"We have now all these devices and these experiments and these processes.… We have been able to collect immense amounts of data, and collecting data makes no sense, or is of no value, if we cannot extract information from the data."

J.C. Loredo-Osti says data science could be applied to a wide range of different disciplines. (CBC)

Loredo-Osti said forensics, geology and genetics are just a few of the possible fields where data science could be applied to sort through vast amounts of data.

Science and exploration in the North is another application, according to Loredo-Osti.

"Talking about exploring the Arctic, if we don't have data scientists, it's just a dream because we will not be able to have a lot of people in the Arctic," he said.

"We will have machinery and we will have instruments collecting data, but we have to have data scientists making sense of those things."

Finding a needle in a haystack

For Travis Fridgen, the acting dean of science and a researcher in the chemistry department, data science also presents opportunities to find tiny bits of information within a huge amount of data — for example, when conducting experiments to find signs of disease.

"We use things like machine learning and data mining in order to pick out little needles out of this huge haystack that would make sense and we can interpret as, 'Oh, this is a marker for this disease,' and then that might actually be a target for drugs," he said.

Acting Dean of Science Travis Fridgen says trained data scientists will be helpful for more than just the province's tech sector. (CBC)

Data science also projects to be an important job as automation and artificial intelligence become more and more prevalent.

Fridgen said that bodes well for the tech sector in Newfoundland and Labrador; companies in the industry need workers trained in data science, but skills in the field aren't limited to that sector. 

"We as a faculty, and actually a university, can play a role in trying to produce graduates who have this expertise, which is clearly needed in not only the world and Canada, but also right here in Newfoundland and Labrador," he said.

The material in the proposed program was also developed with the next generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in mind, said Loredo-Osti.

"A lot of the thinking of how to design and how to structure the courses was with the kids of our province in mind, it's to give them opportunities and an opportunity that really has the potential to be relevant in the future."

Good jobs, growing demand

Fridgen said data science jobs are good ones, but because data science is a relatively new field, they're jobs that young people don't necessarily know about.

The written proposal for the program cites estimates from the U.S. that the growth of employment in data science is set to surpass the growth of almost any other profession in the next five years.

Those jobs also pay around $100,000 a year, on average, something that's attractive to international students, as well.

"We need people to not just come here, be educated and go home, we need them to come here, stay here and support our economy by actually living here," Fridgen said.

"This is partially filling one of the needs of what has already been identified as a sector that's growing by the sector themselves and politicians."

He said the program is also a real possibility for retraining for people from other sectors.

You could see this really becoming something big and truly encompassing almost every department and faculty in the university.- Travis Fridgen

Fridgen said the program wouldn't require new resources, as there is already data science expertise in existing departments at the university, and would be financially self-sufficient with tuition and other fees.

"There's data science in every one of the programs at the university so you could see this really becoming something big and truly encompassing almost every department and faculty in the university," he said.

"They'll get enough students that they'll be able to cover the costs associated with operating the program and perhaps generate revenue to put back into that program." 

Loredo-Osti said there isn't another program quite like what they've proposed at any other university in Atlantic Canada. St. Mary's University in Halifax has a similar program, but it's based more in computer science.

He said he'd hoped the program could begin in the fall semester, but the pandemic has delayed the proposal. 

Fridgen said the proposal is now set to go before MUN's school of graduate studies for review, and will then need to be approved by the university committee and senate.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lukas Wall

CBC News

Lukas Wall is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.

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