Experts highlight importance of data science, describe job opportunities at ‘Tech Trek’ event in Amherst

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

AMHERST — When Superstorm Sandy was targeting the Northeast three years ago, data analysts employed by National Grid prepared the company for where power outages would occur.

With an 85 percent accuracy rate in Massachusetts, the utility was able to successfully deploy repair crews that would get power restored in a timely fashion to most parts of the state, said data analyst Kristin Vincent.

Vincent was among several experts representing the fields of financial services, energy, technology and manufacturing who highlighted the importance of data science at a “Tech Trek” event Monday.

Designed to showcase how computing and analytics have real-world implications, the first “Tech Trek” event west of Worcester, part of the state’s big-data initiative, was held at the MassMutual center for data science in downtown Amherst.

“This is about making opportunities just as appealing here as they are in other parts of the state,” said Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary for Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the state’s Office of Housing and Economic Development.

More than 80 students from the Five College area networked with these professionals and learned more about the jobs that might be available as they gathered on the main level at the mixed-use Kendrick Place building, where 20 of an anticipated 50 MassMutual data scientists are already working.

Stebbins said every region of the state is important to her office, and she aimed to raise awareness that data scientists can remain in a rural part of state and enjoy an idyllic quality of life.

“There’s a huge value to building your career as a big fish in a smaller pond,” Stebbins said. “This is a great place to make friends, build a network and have a career.”

Richard K. Sullivan Jr., president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council said such an event can develop and retain workforce in the region. “There are a lot of future opportunities in the field of big data in western Massachusetts,” Sullivan said.

Getting students studying data science, computer science and related fields and seeking jobs in the Pioneer Valley is critical.

“You are the talent we’re all talking about,” Sullivan said.

Mary Rose Greenough, director of the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, said such events help make Massachusetts a “big data” hub and allow students to pursue their careers near where they study.

“We want you to stay in Massachusetts,” Greenough said. “We’d even like you to stay locally.”

An indication of the growing importance of big data is seen at the University of Massachusetts, where Andrew McCallum, director of the Center for Data Science, said a new master’s degree program in data science is being launched and doubling the number of data science courses offered.

Several students who attended said they see potential for employment once their studies are complete.

“It’s an opportunity to reach out to the industry,” said Zhanlong Qiu, a doctoral student in physics at UMass.

Qiu said he was invited by two friends who work for MassMutual and believes that his studies could translate well to the data-science field.

“It’s really easy to adapt (physics) to other kinds of jobs,” Qiu said.

Amherst College senior Omar Pineda Jr., a double major in math and Asian civilizations and languages, said the “Tech Trek” made him aware that he may be able to pursue a good job without having to return to his home in New York City.

“I thought this would be a good opportunity to see what opportunities there are in the Pioneer Valley,” Pineda said. “It’s interesting to see that there are options here.”

Mark McCartin-Lim, a doctoral student in the UMass computer science department, said data-science jobs could be appealing. “There isn’t a lot of jobs for computer scientists here,” McCartin-Lim said.

In addition to opening the new data science center within walking distance of the UMass and Amherst College campuses, MassMutual has also supported big-data education in western Massachusetts through a $2 million, four-year effort to support “Women in Data Science” programs at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.

Former Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Coull, who attended the event, said MassMutual’s data-science office is an impressive collaboration that ties together economic development with higher education.

“This is a landmark for Amherst,” Coull said. “I think this will inspire others so we’re getting the businesses we need and want.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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