Internships are the strength of ETSU’s Applied Data Science grad program

Published 10:14 am Wednesday, January 10, 2024

It’s an age-old conundrum. Employers want to hire candidates with experience. But how do you get that experience without someone giving you a chance?
One way is internships, many of which are available to students in academic programs throughout East Tennessee State University. One of those is ETSU’s Applied Data Science Master’s Degree Program, where students are getting valuable experience from the hands-on work they’re doing with entities from local small businesses and government to internationally known companies.
Applied data science is the study of techniques for collecting, processing and drawing inferences from all manner of data, according to Dr. Robert Price, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and graduate coordinator of the Applied Data Science Program.
“It uses statistics in conjunction with a large repertory of programming tools to extract and organize knowledge from large volumes of structured and unstructured data,” he said. “The growing importance of data science in technology, industry, health services, administration and other arenas calls for a well-trained data science workforce.
“The Master’s Degree in Applied Data Science will help to alleviate this need by promoting data literacy across many of ETSU’s disciplines,” Price continued, “while enhancing data science expertise by providing students with comprehensive and in-depth training. This degree will enhance students’ mathematical and computational proficiency while providing real-world experiences through internships with local industries and health care or administrative units. At the same time, an extensive elective track will guide their efforts to identify suitable concentrations within the rich spectrum of data-related disciplines.”
ETSU’s Applied Data Science Master’s Degree Program took its first students in the fall of 2022 and now has 10 students enrolled this year. Students may complete this 33-credit-hour program in 18 months either online or on-ground.
It is multidisciplinary, with components in both the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Business and Technology. It includes several required courses in mathematics and statistics, as well as three courses, including AI and machine learning, in the Department of Computing. Students may also take six hours of electives in any of several focus areas, including psychology, sport science and public health.
The primary strength of the Applied Data Science Program is its internships, which allow students to work directly on projects with hands-on application of real data.
According to Dr. Michele Joyner, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics who directs the internship program, students who participate in these two-semester internships gain valuable experience that greatly benefits them when they enter the highly competitive job market for professionals with their skill sets.
Graduate student Maria Alfaro is working with Pfizer on a segment of a larger project to develop a new method to model pressure-volume loops, which measure cardiac function, in mice. She appreciates the opportunity to work not only with faculty, but also with a mentor from Pfizer. Her experience with the company led her to develop a strong interest in cardiology and in public health applications of data science.
“This has been a perfect opportunity for me as an international student to get experience here in the U.S.,” said Alfaro, who is from Argentina and played tennis as an undergraduate at ETSU, where she graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in mathematics with a concentration in statistics. “Also, when I started my master’s, I knew I wanted to do something related to this – to data science and statistics – but having this experience of working with Pfizer made me realize this is exactly the type of job that I want in the future. It is illuminating the path I want to take.”
Anna White is a graduate assistant with a class performing an economic impact study pertaining to the expansion of Winged Deer Park for Johnson City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. One of the greatest benefits of working on outside projects is the collaboration with a variety of experts.
“You don’t work by yourself, especially in data science,” said White, who is from Thompson’s Station and earned her B.S. degree in mathematics from ETSU. “It’s never up to one person. It’s a team with all different domain experts who come together and work on a project. It is valuable to work with that distribution of labor, taking all those specific experts, and putting that knowledge together for one purpose.
“It’s a good learning opportunity to figure out what you don’t know and what you need to be asking to grow your own knowledge of the domain. It’s good practice in learning and becoming an expert on a problem that you’ve never heard before and then presenting it in a knowledgeable fashion.”
Janet Kireta, a graduate student from Kenya, said she appreciates the opportunity to work with different departments on campus through the Statistical Consulting Lab, and Jonah Welch of Bristol, Virginia, noted the valuable exposure to various industry software platforms that are not currently part of the program curriculum. Kireta holds an M.S. in mathematical sciences from ETSU and earned her B.S. in economics and statistics from South Eastern Kenya University. Welch earned a B.S. in mathematics with a concentration in statistics at ETSU.
While a strong background in mathematics and statistics is helpful, it is not required to enter and be successful in the Applied Data Science Program, Price said.
And the results of applied data science, whether folks realize it or not, are all around, added Joyner, who noted that other internships and partnerships are either underway or in the works with such entities as Ballad Health, Crumbl Cookies, Bellafina Chocolates in Kingsport, Duke Energy in North Carolina, the federal government and more.

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