Making the Grade: KSU program preps grads to be data experts

Anyone who’s ever had a “just for you” movie appear on Netflix or a song selection pop up on Pandora has a sense of what Jennifer Priestley’s work is about. As director of Kennesaw State University’s Center for Statistics and Analytical Services, the Ph.D. and her master’s students in Applied Statistics crunch data about actual projects brought to them by real companies. It’s not only a learning experience; it’s often a glimpse into what life on the job will look like.

“We use real-world projects, data and questions that are messy, complex and unstructured,” explained Priestley. “Students get a feel for what it’s like to have to take dozens of complex, mismatched, unstructured files and write the code to extract the data, clean the files and merge the data. Sometimes it takes weeks to get it to the point where we can analyze it, but it’s an amazing experience.”

Priestley knows the reality of numbers-crunching first hand. Before joining KSU 11 years ago, she worked with companies such as American Express and AT&T to transform their raw data into numbers that, in turn, could translate into increased profitability by recognizing trends, preferences and behavior. That same experience in the center allows master’s graduates to move immediately into the workforce: The program has a 100 percent placement rate, with many grads receiving multiple offers.

Creating such a successful program seemed like a stretch back in 2006, when Applied Statistics debuted at KSU as an undergraduate and graduate program.

“It was like the field of dreams - we wondered if anyone would come,” said Priestley. “But the response was deafening, and our students have been in huge demand. We recognized a gap in the skills set in the metropolitan area and the state for people who could walk into a job on day one and begin to extract, load and translate data into meaningful information used to improve the decision-making process.”

Initially, the program attracted just enough applicants for its 40 slots; today, there are three to four people applying for each spot. But the demand doesn’t mean the program will get bigger, said Priestley. “If we increase size, it affects the student experience. In fact, we’ve pulled back the number of seats to keep a lower teacher-student ratio so we can work closely together on the center’s massive projects.”

The center, chartered in 2010, forged the final link between the classroom and companies looking for help analyzing their extensive data. Graduate students take on the projects with the support of the program’s 13 faculty members, all of whom bring real-world work practices into the classroom.

“There aren’t many academics who have a decade of private sector experience, but we’ve all worked in industry - finance, health care, engineering - all doing the same thing: extracting and translating data,” said Priestley.

Brandon Mohammad, a graduate research assistant in the center, was drawn to the program’s practicality.

“It’s designed to teach the theoretical underpinnings, and I am thankful that we are expected to put it into practice,” he said. “ This combination has not only created opportunities I may not have otherwise received but has given me the skills necessary to excel.”

Based on the success of the center and the master’s program, KSU will launch a Ph.D. in Data Science this fall.

“Data science sits at the intersection of applied statistics, computer science and mathematics,” said Priestley. “There will be more theoretical mathematics, more computer languages and courses in high-performance computing and data warehousing. Right now, the people who have those skills are on the West Coast - Google, Netflix, Pandora, Amazon. But what about companies such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta? There are Fortune 500 companies here who are facing big-data challenges. If we can grow the talent, it will offer all kinds of advantages to this region.”

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SEND US YOUR STORIESEach week we look at programs, projects and other successful endeavors at area schools — from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.Contact us: Send your newstips and ideas to communitynews@ajc.com.

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