DSI Students Conduct Data Science Research in Labs Across Columbia

Manksh Gupta
Manksh Gupta

Students at the Data Science Institute (DSI) gain experience working as research assistants for Columbia professors, thanks to a program called Campus Connections.

The program, which has placed DSI students in research positions across Columbia University, is mutually beneficial to students and professors: Students learn research skills while professors get help from the brightest data-science students in the nation.

Having research experience will also help the students when they later apply for jobs or to doctoral programs, says Rachel Cohen, assistant director of Career Development at DSI who launched the program with Jonathan Stark, chief administrative and operations officer.

Every semester, Cohen contacts Columbia professors asking if they’d consider inviting DSI students to assist them with research. There’s also a Campus Connections website where professors can request help with research. Cohen then publicizes the research project so the professor can connect with interested students.

“The value of this program is that it supports our faculty while giving our students technical data-science experience,” says Cohen. “Our students are sought after by employers, but having research experience makes them even more attractive to employers, who want to hire graduates with demonstrated data-science skills. Campus Connections gives our students that.”

Consider, for instance, Manksh Gupta, a DSI master's student who through Campus Connections is working on important environmental research. His project aims to conserve energy in buildings in New York City ‒ a smart-city research project led by Civil Engineering Professor Patricia Culligan and Post-doctoral researcher Ali Mehmani. Gupta says he had hoped to work on smart-city research “since the day I applied to the DSI master’s program and this project provided exactly that.”

As a part of the project, the team is trying to predict the electricity-consumption levels of certain residential houses in Manhattan. If they are able to make energy predictions, smart devices can then be used to save electricity. But smart devices require data on future energy consumption in order to optimize the use of batteries and other energy sources. And that’s the data Gupta is analyzing.

“I get to apply the techniques I learn in class directly to real-world problems,” says Gupta. “I am learning a lot from the post-doc and professors involved. It's really exciting!”

He must decide soon whether to work in industry or apply to doctoral programs. But whichever path he chooses, Gupta, like Lui, believes having hands-on experience will help him.

“I feel this research experience will help me make a career decision and prepare me for either industry or academia,” he says. “Either way, it’s a great learning experience.”

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Wilson Lui, another master’s student at DSI, is assisting Professor Anastasia Romanou with climatology research relating to global warming. To assist her, Lui applies data-science techniques such as clustering and visualization to the data. He must explain to Romanou, who is not a data scientist, the reasoning behind those data techniques, “which is an invaluable skill for any data scientist to have,” he says.  

The data that Romanou collects detail the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean, the fluctuation of sea-surface temperatures and whether carbon dioxide evaporates into the atmosphere or is absorbed by the ocean. It’s essential research, since increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to global warming.

Lui is grateful to be getting experience in a new field while working for a prominent researcher: Romanou is research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“Since I learn best by doing, any opportunity to practice what I'm learning in class helps me absorb the material better,” Lui says. “This research project is giving me experience applying data-science techniques to a different kind of dataset than what I’ve worked with in class, and I’m familiarizing myself with a scientific discipline that’s entirely new to me.”

The research experience will also help Liu build his career. He is interviewing now for spring internships and says prospective employers have been impressed with his climatology research.  

“Several employers have expressed interest in this specific research experience when replying to my applications and when interviewing me,” he says. “So I know this research will help me get a job.”   

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Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson is Director of the Security Force Monitor project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. The project collects public information about the police, military and other security forces around the world. The information is essential in that it’s used to make the forces more transparent and accountable to citizens and to ward off human rights violations. In that regard, Wilson has created WhoWasInCommand.com, a platform on which the public can see detailed information about the structure, location and commanders of security forces.

The platform and the Monitor’s related work generate a great deal of data. And to help him analyze it, Wilson has turned to Yue Ulysses Chang, also a DSI master’s student participating in Campus Connections. Chang is using a data technique called Named Entity Recognition to automate search functions on the platform and help citizens sort through the mass of data about security forces. His work is helping to publicize important information that safeguards citizen’s human rights.

“There’s a vast amount of informative data hidden in the texts that are publicly accessible,” says Chang. “This project provides me with an opportunity to help uncover those data for citizens while solving meaningful real-world problems.”

And for his part, Wilson is happy to have data-science students assist him. He’s had a few data-science students work for him and says their skills are helping the Security Force Monitor meet its human-rights mandate.

“It's incredibly exciting to bring data-science students like Yue into the work of the Security Force Monitor,” says Wilson, “and we're looking forward to continuing and deepening our work with both the students and the Data Science Institute. We need data scientists to tackle some key challenges in our effort to make security forces more transparent and accountable to citizens all over the world.”

--By Robert Florida


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