The Ultimate Quest

Data science at Marquette is expanding to provide technical and ethical leadership.

Dr. Shion Guha likes computer scientists who can write code, crunch data sets and develop algorithms. But he loves computer scientists who can do all those things plus think critically, act ethically and understand human behavior. That quest for a total-package computing approach led him from Cornell University in New York, where he earned his doctorate, to a position at Marquette in 2016 as assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science.

Dr. Shion Guha, assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science, joined Marquette’s faculty in 2016, bringing both expertise in data science and a conviction that the world needs holistic data scientists able to think critically, act ethically and understand computer science.

“I strongly believe that computer scientists should have a rigorous liberal arts background,” he says. “Marquette’s Jesuit history fused with a unique common core accomplishes this for every student.” Guha was recruited to grow Marquette’s expertise in data science, a specialization within computer science that aims to sort and make sense of the seemingly endless flood of electronic information now available. Students now can major in data science, as Marquette in 2016 became one of just a handful of universities nationally to offer the major to undergraduates. The major stands at the intersection of computer science, statistics and mathematics, which made Marquette a logical place for it since those disciplines are already joined here. That department, within the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, is also the nexus of a variety of new (or novel) efforts — centers, research partnerships, graduate programs, a certificate offering to benefit computer science professionals in the field — that represent the university planting its ag in this fast-emerging field.

Guha gets occasional groans from freshmen in his Introduction to Computer Science course when he tells them how much they’ll need to write. “We came here to learn code,” they tell him. By junior year, students thank him, by now in upper-level courses and well aware why writing matters even in a discipline defined by zeros and ones.

“We’re trying to train holistic computer scientists,” he says.

Hear more from Dr. Shion Guha in the Illuminating Intellect podcast

Not that the technical stuff isn’t important, too. The previous 15 years have brought an explosion in the amount of data created, collected and stored by companies, universities, governments and individuals. By 2009, companies with at least 1,000 employees had an average of 200 terabytes of stored data, twice what global giant Walmart had just a decade earlier, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.

“The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, the rise of multimedia, social media, and the Internet of Things will fuel exponential growth in data for the foreseeable future,” the report’s authors write.

One problem: There aren’t nearly enough people trained to handle all that data, which holds potential for massive economic opportunity but also unprecedented challenges related to privacy, security and intellectual property. The news of big data’s downsides isn’t hard to find: a breach of credit bureau company Equifax that exposed sensitive financial data of 43 million Americans, for example, or the alleged spread of “fake news” stories on social-media networks that may have influenced voters in the 2016 federal elections.

Dr. Despoina Perouli, cyber security expert and assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science, joined Marquette in part to help launch and develop the new Center for Cyber Security Awareness and Cyber Defense. She also has a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the security issues raised by newly marketed social robots.

To help fill that talent gap, the university has taken bold steps in recent years. In addition to adding the undergraduate major in data science, the Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science Department also established the Center for Cyber Security Awareness and Cyber Defense, hiring Dr. Despoina Perouli, a cyber security expert and assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science, to help launch and develop it.

“We started pursuing these areas because that’s where the action is,” says Dr. Tom Kaczmarek, the center’s director who also is director of Marquette’s master of science in computing program.

Adds Perouli: “Cyber security is an important problem that our nation and the world faces today; Marquette has the ethical duty to respond to this problem and has taken the steps to do so. Our university has a unique opportunity to play a leading role in the state of Wisconsin by training the cyber security experts of tomorrow.”

The twin developments have brought new faculty, courses for both students and area businesses, degree offerings and fresh scholarly research opportunities, too. For example, Perouli secured a $175,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study social robots — think Amazon Echo or Google Home or the new generation of mobile assistants offering to roam your home with you — and how to develop algorithms to detect when they’re overstepping their roles and violating users’ security and privacy. The grant will enable both undergraduate and graduate student research opportunities.

“Cyber security is an important problem that our nation and the world faces today.” — Dr. Despoina Perouli

“The social robots differ from more traditional computing devices, such as laptops and smartphones, on several aspects: Mobility, sensors, use and computing power are some of them,” Perouli says. “Therefore, relying on current security practices is not going to necessarily solve all the important problems.”

Dr. Aleksandra Snowden, assistant professor of social and cultural sciences, and Dr. Amber Wichowsky, associate professor of political science, have explored the interdisciplinary reach of data science, obtaining a Mellon Foundation grant with Guha to hold a mini-course on spatial analysis focusing on crime mapping in Milwaukee.

Guha, Dr. Amber Wichowsky, associate professor of political science, and Dr. Aleksandra Snowden, a criminologist and assistant professor of social and cultural sciences, were awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to start a three-day mini-course on spatial analysis that focused on studying the possibilities and pitfalls of crime mapping in collaboration with the Milwaukee Police Department.

“We’ve heard a lot of criticism about Milwaukee being a segregated city and unfair outcomes due to over-policing,” Guha says. “A lot of (policing decisions) are driven by quantitative analysis of crime. If the quantitative work is not done in the best way it could, that might lead to unfair outcomes.”

The expansion of data science is leaving its mark on graduate-level offerings, also. Two years ago, the university started offering a specialization in data science to graduate computer science students. About a dozen are now pursuing it, Kaczmarek says. Responding to an exploding demand for data analysis in health care, the department in collaboration with the College of Nursing this semester launched a graduate certificate in data science and a master’s in health care analytics.

Guha says there are discussions underway about adding joint master’s degrees with a data focus — with crime analytics and with media analytics. To facilitate easily adding data techniques to any discipline, the department has created a 15-credit data sciences core that can be worked into the curriculum of any other master’s program, with students earning the other 15 credits in the chosen discipline.

Then there’s the undergraduate level, where the year-old data sciences major was joined this fall by an undergraduate major in bioinformatics, a joint offering from the Biological Sciences and Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science departments.

“I believe (data science) has a huge potential to improve people’s lives over the next few decades,” says Marielle Billig, a senior majoring in computer engineering and data science. “We are entering an age where everything from your watch to your refrigerator to traffic lights collects data, but we will need people to analyze this data for it to be useful.”

“I strongly believe that computer scientists should have a rigorous liberal arts background,” he says. “Marquette’s Jesuit history fused with a unique common core accomplishes this for every student.” — Dr. Shion Guha

Billig spent a summer interning as a software developer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and is working with Guha on a research project related to algorithmic ethics.

In 2016, Kaczmarek, with Dr. Theresa Tobin, Arts ’97, associate professor of philosophy, and Dr. Katherine Rickus, assistant professor of philosophy, hosted the college’s first Ethics of Big Data symposium, bringing the academic community together with local business leaders to share best practices. Now in its third year, the symposium this spring will be hosted at Northwestern Mutual in downtown Milwaukee. Kaczmarek also credits Rev. Joseph Coelho, S.J., a graduate student in his department, with facilitating the meetings.

As Marquette moves into this broad new eld that’s rich with opportunities for faculty and students alike, it does so with an accompanying sense of caution, knowing that a strong focus on ethics must remain at the core, a way to stay true to the university’s heritage and also distinguish itself from many other programs nationally.

“That’s a result of us being a Jesuit university,” says Kaczmarek. “Even in our graduate programs, I think it makes sense to pay attention to all aspects of using technology, not just the mechanics of analysis.”

— Daniel Simmons


Adapted from the debut issue of A&S, the annual magazine of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. Read the entire issue.