MHC: a destination for data science

By Sasha Nyary 

Mount Holyoke College is making a name for itself as a go-to school for data science — and as one of few liberal arts colleges to offer this curriculum. 

With the creation of a Nexus concentration in data science and the Women in Data Science Initiative, the College is on the forefront of the exploding field. 

Most recently, Mount Holyoke was the Pioneer Valley’s local host of the Women in Data Science Conference, an event that was streamed live on Feb. 3 by Stanford University to 25 countries and more than 75 locations around the world. The College hosted its own panel and speakers and provided networking opportunities in addition to a location to watch the all-day conference. 

“We’re so excited about what we’re doing in data science on the Mount Holyoke campus,” said Martha Hoopes, professor of biological sciences, who co-chairs the new Nexus. “To see people around the world proclaiming the importance of this field — and lots and lots of women, in particular  — is key to getting women into the pipeline.” 

Hoopes pointed out that the conference reinforced how a field like data science fits naturally within a liberal arts context. Several of the speakers, who work in high-level positions for companies such as Netflix, SAP and Google, noted that their backgrounds were in something else other than statistics and computer science. 

“That something else is a part of what drew them down the particular path that they took,” Hoopes said. “Whether it was art or music or biology, it gave them the insight that they felt was really important for what they ended up doing.” 

Mount Holyoke specifically is the perfect place for data science, she said. Not only does it have the essential combination of computer science, math and statistics in a strong liberal arts environment, its student population is also very diverse. 

“Data science can be thought of as the application of a set of tools and skills to tell stories and solve problems,” Hoopes said. “The diverse understanding from the liberal arts make those solutions more insightful and richer. And Mount Holyoke’s wide range of race, ethnicities and religions offers a diverse array of points of view and ways of thinking that are just as important to finding novel solutions.” 

In his opening remarks, Jon Western, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, addressed the importance of data science in the liberal arts context by noting his work as an international human rights scholar. 

“With the emergence of new technology, we now have data coming in fast and creative ways,” Western said. As an international relations professor, he works with professors in the geography department to map conflicts around the globe. 

“The technology and data collection ongoing today was unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “How can we use this data to understand the world around us?” 

Other opening remarks came from Katherine Rowe, the dean of faculty and provost at Smith College, and Sears Merritt, vice president and chief data scientist at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). Both institutions partner with Mount Holyoke in the Women in Data Science Initiative and co-sponsored the conference. 

The Women in Data Science Conference was designed to inspire and educate data scientists  regardless of gender; to support women in the field; to present the latest research; and to strengthen ties between academia and industry. 

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