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New Collaborations Designed to Increase Access to Data Science for All Students

November 20, 2023
Professor Suzanne Sindi
Professor Suzanne Sindi has spearheaded the effort to bring data science opportunities to UC Merced students.

UC Merced is part of several new initiatives aimed at increasing the accessibility and inclusivity of data science studies and opening new opportunities for historically underserved students after graduation.

New grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the California Learning Lab are funding collaborations with a sister campus and several community colleges as well as the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) to accomplish these goals.

Department of Applied Mathematics Chair Professor Suzanne Sindi, the principal investigator for UC Merced on these projects, said the emerging field of data science offers a wide variety of options for students to learn new skills that will benefit them in almost any field they choose to follow.

The NSF grant funds a partnership between UCs Merced and Berkeley and Tuskegee University, which brings together a Historically Black University, a Hispanic-Serving Institution and the power of these three important institutions. They have received a $1.8 million, three-year grant to create an introductory interdisciplinary computing and social science course.

Students won’t need coding experience before they take the class — a common barrier to entry for students at the college level because not all California high schools offer coding training. The class will also teach computing through a data lens, illustrating how it can help address societal issues.

Diversifying data scientists could expand the views represented in the development of, and problems solved by, technology that has the power to shape and change the world, UC Berkeley said.

Sindi and fellow UC Merced professors Heather Bortfeld, Roummel Marcia, Juan Meza, Erica Rutter and Teaching Professor Rosemarie Bongers are part of the collaborative that will develop and pilot teaching individual modules or parts of the course. In the second year, the team will assess what was effective, put together the full class and develop related materials such as a free online textbook.

In the third year, the three institutions will jointly teach the hybrid course. Through virtual sessions, students from all three schools will learn together, but the in-person seminars will be shaped for students from each university.

The team is also working on parts of the course with stakeholders from community colleges and plans to work with high school teachers in the future. The class will also be geared toward those audiences and could be used to further increase access to data science after the grant ends.

Another way to increase representation in the data science fields is by giving students a pathway through community college to complete the coursework they will need to prepare them to finish their undergraduate degrees at a university.

Through the California Learning Lab’s support, UCs Merced and Berkeley, Berkeley City College, the City College of San Francisco and Laney City College will collaborate to build curriculum to increase pathways for students from two- to four-year colleges by creating introductory, interdisciplinary curriculum that is scalable across the state.

“Berkeley has really led the effort throughout the state to standardize education at the community college level, and we are really glad to be part of this,” Sindi said. “It's not easy to build a curriculum, especially one that is scalable and will benefit all of the state’s community colleges, the CSUs and the UCs.”

The collaborators intend to provide baseline training in core computing, statistics and quantitative social science concepts. They will work in teams to develop course modules, including a coordinated collection of materials — coding notebooks, discussion guides, assessments and out-of-class assignments. They said foundations in data science and introductory computing courses are critical for student success, and they intend to create curriculum that is relevant to students from all backgrounds and helps students integrate data science into both their academic and social identities.

Through the DOE grant, Sindi, fellow UC Merced professors Carolin Frank, Tomas Rube and Fred Wolf, and Zhong Wang from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the JGI, will build on an established internship program for graduate students.

The summer program matches students with projects and mentor scientists at JGI, where they get hands-on experience in genome research and computational tools to solve biology and genomics challenges.

The DOE aims to support research by historically underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and diversify leadership in the physical sciences.

Yumary Vasquez said her experience in the summer internship helped her immensely in her research to understand the diversity and functional capabilities of new symbiotic lineages.

“My experience in data gathering was minimal before JGI, although I did have some background in analyses. Before JGI I worked on small datasets — fewer than 20 genomes were sequenced by the lab I was in. But at JGI, I was working with more than 1,000 genomes,” she said. “I used some skills I already had from UC Merced and applied them at a larger scale and with much more complexity.”

When she was a graduate student at UC Merced, Vasquez knew she didn't want a career in academia but wasn't sure what other opportunities there would be for her.

Since the internship last year, Vasquez graduated from UC Merced with her Ph.D. and is now a postdoctoral researcher at JGI.

“The skills I learned in my internship are vital for my current position. Much of the work I am doing in my position builds on the work I started last year,” she said. “My experience in the program was amazing. I had a great mentor, Juan Villada, who taught me a lot about working with large amounts of data.”

The internship afforded her the opportunity to meet a lot of other mentors from JGI, network with them and talk to them about their experience working in a government laboratory. Now she hopes to get a permanent job in a national lab. Her husband, Oscar Davalos, also did his graduate studies at UC Merced, went through the JGI internship and is a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

 Since 2014, the program has supported 60 students who have contributed to approximately 40 JGI projects. 

This UC Merced-JGI training program will be expanded through the DOE’s Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW) program in four directions:

  • Expanding the summer internship to a year-long research and training program;
  • Engaging the training program’s alumni for workforce building and mentoring of new trainees;
  • Strengthening the research and scientific exchange between UC Merced and JGI; and
  • Employing data-driven assessments to improve the program and serve as a model for other DOE and academia partnerships.

The RENEW program gave out more than $70 million in grants to support such programs at 65 institutions, including 40 higher-learning institutions that serve minority populations.

“Ensuring America’s best and brightest students have pathways to STEM fields will be key to leading the world’s energy transition and achieving President Biden’s ambitious energy and climate goals,” the DOE said.