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DNA melding into phylogenetic tree
The powerful, broad appeal of data science
Two Penn State alumni’s paths converge on a passion for data-driven problem-solving
27 July 2020

As a graduate student in biology at Penn State, Eberly alumnus Drew Wham traveled around the world, scuba diving at tropical reefs off the coasts of five continents to collect coral specimens for scientific research. With coral biologist Todd LaJeunesse, he co-authored more than 10 peer-reviewed papers on coral population genetics, two of which identified new coral species through novel methods he was instrumental in developing. Given the obvious appeal and evident success of his graduate research—as well as the impact of climate change on coral reefs worldwide and the intense scientific and public interest the issue has garnered—a career as a coral scientist was a natural and promising choice.

But when he completed his doctorate in 2016, Wham took a dramatically different tack, opting instead to work as a data scientist with Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT). At first glance, his decision seems inexplicable—the two occupations bear no immediate resemblance—but as he describes it, the shift isn’t actually as extreme as it appears.

“What I’m doing now is basically the same thing I was doing before,” Wham says. “The only difference is that the underlying data is no longer genetic data from corals, it’s education data from all over Penn State—just a different bunch of numbers.”

As he was nearing the end of his doctoral studies, Wham concluded that although he was exceptionally passionate about coral reef biology, his primary passion was data analysis and problem-solving—“taking hard problems, mapping them onto the most-current technologies, and then turning those into data science projects,” he says.

Now, Wham explains, he has the opportunity to look at hard problems in higher education and figure out how to solve them at Penn State using big data. “From the outside it may seem like a giant leap,” he says, “But for me, my job looks pretty much the same, and actually the data is easier to get now—it comes straight to me.”

As Penn State and other universities increasingly focus on the potential of technological innovation to transform the educational landscape, units like TLT and its Data-Empowered Learning team are deploying machine learning and other cutting-edge tools to enhance teaching and learning as well as support services like academic advising. Among the tools Wham and his colleagues are developing are one that transcribes and visually plots the content of class lectures, another that helps instructors generate quiz questions from their lecture audio, and a third that analyzes students’ academic performance to provide insight to their advisers.

“We spend a lot of time with instructors and advisers, helping them to understand how we intend what we’ve developed to be used, and then learning from them what they do and how we need to change what we’ve done to fit their needs and how they think it should work,” Wham explains. “There’s a lot of give and take, and it’s been incredibly illuminating to see what we’re doing in practice.”

Drew Wham (left) and Vince Trost at the 2018 Penn State TLT Symposium
   Drew Wham (left) and Vince Trost at the 2018 Penn State
    TLT Symposium

As he sees it, “The job of a data scientist working for the University is to take a problem and design a data-based way to solve it,” Wham adds. “And hopefully, as what we’re doing becomes more and more used, we’ll have more and more hard problems that are given to us to be solved.”

One of Wham's teammates at TLT, a fellow Penn State alum named Vince Trost, also took an intriguing route to his career in data science—one that encompassed several major changes, a transfer to University Park, and a chance meeting that culminated in a trip to Paris to pitch a startup concept to L’Oréal. “It’s funny how that worked out,” he chuckles.

After switching his major from civil engineering to plastics engineering and then to mathematics, Trost learned that Penn State was offering a new major in Data Sciences at University Park. He reached out to then-Interim Dean Mary Beth Rosson in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, inquiring whether he would be able to transfer from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to University Park and finish his undergraduate degree in data sciences. “Everything else I tried seemed boring,” Trost recalls. “I decided to jump into data sciences because it seemed like an up-and-coming skill set that would enable me to satisfy my curiosity.”

Since the Data Sciences major was brand new, a number of the upper-level required courses weren’t ready for enrollment, so Trost worked with Rosson and the college’s undergraduate advisers to fulfill those requirements through independent studies over the course of his junior and senior years. After completing nearly 30 credits in his final spring semester and tying up a few loose ends over the summer, Trost finally graduated with his bachelor’s degree in data sciences. “I had quite the journey,” he says with a grin.

Along the way, looking for like-minded compatriots at University Park, Trost discovered Nittany Data Labs (NDL)—a student-run group of data science enthusiasts doing consulting work for local business clientele—and with several other students from the group, he decided to enter a business case competition sponsored by L’Oréal. “The prompt of the competition was to create the salon experience of the future,” Trost explains. “We used everything we had learned through NDL to build a very data-driven solution. We put together a YouTube video, and we ended up being in the top 10 out of 350 submissions from schools across the country.”

At the same time, Penn State was holding its annual HackPSU hackathon, so Trost and the team used the opportunity to build their prototype—a proof of concept for a “smart mirror” that could display different hairstyles in real time—which they took to New York to present, in person, to judges of the L’Oréal competition. “We ended up winning it, beating everybody in the U.S.,” Trost recalls, “and we were fortunate enough to fly to Paris and present there.”

Unfortunately the team didn’t win the global competition, but they did share a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a long and winding road. “It was a great time that I’m super grateful for,” Trost says. “People have said that I took such a weird path, but it was because I took that path that I got to where I am.”

Trost is now a co-adviser to Nittany Data Labs, and working at TLT he is clearly thrilled to be pushing the forefront of data science in higher ed. “The pace of innovation in this space is so rapid,” he says. “New things come out every six months that are game changers, and that gives us a lot of ideas and opportunities to build new apps that can do even cooler things. That’s the coolest part of my job—keeping up with the state of the art and applying it to education. You’ve always got to be hustling.”

It’s a mindset that Wham certainly shares—of striving to stay at the fore, finding creative solutions in data, and loving every minute of it. “A lot of times you’re showing people technology that’s on the cutting edge,” he says, “and you’re kind of surprising them and to a degree delighting them. It’s pretty cool, to surprise people that we can do this now—it’s hard, but we can do it. It seems unsolvable, but there are emerging solutions.”

Find out more about Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), Data Sciences program, Nittany Data Labs, and HackPSU.