June 21, 2018

New BRET course offers introduction to data science

From left, Ashley Brady, PhD, Kim Petrie, PhD, and Kathy Gould, PhD, have been awarded a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to offer a new career development ASPIRE Module focused on data science. (photo by Joe Howell)

Biomedical science trainees at Vanderbilt have a new career exploration option starting this fall — they can get a taste of what it means to be a “data scientist.”

The Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET) Office of Career Development’s ASPIRE Program received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) grant to support a new ASPIRE Module called “Data Science Essentials: Transitioning Biomedical Scientists from the Bench to the Cloud.” It is the office’s second BWF Career Guidance award.

Data science is an interdisciplinary field that uses computation, mathematics and statistics to extract knowledge from datasets that may be as varied as human genomes, website clicks or insurance billing information.

“Data science is a fast-growing career field for people with the kinds of problem-solving and analytical skills that our trainees have,” said Ashley Brady, PhD, director of Career Engagement and Strategic Partnerships and lead principal investigator of the BWF grant.

Brady developed the program with Kim Petrie, PhD, assistant dean for Biomedical Career Development, and Kathy Gould, PhD, associate dean for Biomedical Sciences.

“People hear the buzzword ‘data scientist,’ and they aren’t really sure what that means,” Gould said. “As part of this new program, our trainees will get to learn from people working as data scientists what their roles are and what they do on a daily basis.”

The program includes three parts, to be offered over the course of the academic year: a didactic eight-week introduction to data science in partnership with the Nashville Software School, a nine-week module to build communication and networking skills, and eight to 10 career case sessions with current data scientists.

Mary van Valkenburg of the Nashville Software School will teach the introductory course, and participants will complete a data science project using publicly available datasets and open-source programming and data visualization tools. The course is open to 12 graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. Applications will be accepted later this summer.

The program is well-aligned with other data science initiatives on campus, Gould said. Vanderbilt is in the process of forming a Data Science Institute that will accelerate data-intensive research and promote and support data science education and training.

“Many of our trainees are life scientists who are hearing about careers in data science but aren’t clear about how to make a transition into this area,” Gould said. “Our program will help them explore this field and what kinds of skills they need to acquire to work as data scientists.”

Participants will also have the opportunity to complete internships offered through the BRET Office of Career Development’s ASPIRE Program. Brady has built a “very robust internship program,” Gould said, with a number of positions that fill data scientist-type roles.

“Nashville is catapulting forward as a technology hub, and paired with the health care industry, there’s a lot of data to be mined,” Brady said. “Companies need people who can think creatively, see patterns, develop algorithms and generate visualizations that make sense of the data.”

John Wark, founder and president of the Nashville Software School, van Valkenburg, and the data scientists who will conduct case sessions are key partners for the Data Science Essentials course.

The BRET team will share the program development, outcomes and best practices at national conferences and in journal articles so that other institutions may develop similar programs, Brady said.