David Mongeau calls himself an “accidental technologist.” As an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, the director of UTSA’s new School of Data Science majored in poetry.
But at some point in his time at the university, he started listening to people who told him he needed to follow a more practical career path, so he minored in data analysis and eventually was hired by a high-tech firm that launched him on his journey into data science.
In January, Mongeau will welcome about 400 students to Texas’ first school of data science as its founding director, a year after UTSA broke ground on the school that will anchor its downtown campus.
Leading visitors on a recent tour of the unfinished six-story building on Dolorosa Street, Mongeau emphasized its open spaces, meant for collaboration among students and faculty, that will lead to “serendipitous interactions” that result in new ideas and approaches to problems. The edifice features 16 research labs, seven classrooms that can accommodate hybrid and remote learning, and a conference center that provides enough security for sensitive conversations with industry and government officials.
As the building is readied to welcome students early next year, UTSA President Taylor Eighmy described Mongeau as the “obvious choice” to spearhead the university’s School of Data Science, given his background in technology and experience leading other schools of data science. The Boston native also earned a Master of Science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and a Master of Business Administration from Purdue University.
Diversity as a lure
Mongeau came to UTSA from the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, working alongside faculty director Saul Perlmutter, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner for physics. Before Mongeau’s time at Berkeley, he co-led the Translational Data Analytics Institute at Ohio State University, where he helped to grow the institute by 52 faculty across 12 colleges.
“The fact that we could steal him away from Berkeley says a lot about where we were going with our intent here, and David could have gone anywhere in the world, given his background,” Eighmy said. “And he elected to come to San Antonio because he believes deeply in the mission and purpose of our university and what he can do in this space around advancing equity and diversity and the appropriate use of data science in a big-picture way.”
For Mongeau, UTSA’s appeal lay in the opportunity to make an impact in diversifying the field of data science, not just regionally but nationally, by joining a Hispanic-Serving Institution. The U.S. Department of Education defines a Hispanic-Serving Institution as a higher educational entity with an undergraduate student population that is at least 25% Hispanic.
Of the roughly 400 students enrolled for the spring 2022 semester, 41% identify as students of color and 45% are women, according to the university.
“Our students are unique,” Mongeau said.
Eighmy agreed, noting that Berkeley and Ohio State are not diverse places where Mongeau felt like he could make as much of an impact in attracting students of color and women to the field of data science.
“They don’t have access to the depth and breadth of students and community and culture that UTSA has,” Eighmy said. “We are sitting in the catbird seat here at UTSA.”
Since he started work in July, Mongeau has spent his time trying to recruit students to the four graduate and one doctorate program the School of Data Science will combine, centralizing degree programs UTSA already offers in one location to foster collaboration starting in January. Mongeau explains to them that data science applies to almost any field of study. Pharmaceutical companies, municipalities and even the Coca-Cola Co. want to use data scientists to help ensure their success.
“Everyone is looking for people who understand data in its various forms, whether it’s audio, image or text,” he said. “It really is important that universities start treating data science the way we treat English composition. Every student has to have a certain level of competency in English composition and a certain level of understanding of math. We need to do that with data science.”
UTSA is looking at creating an elective course called “data science for all” that would introduce the discipline to interested students and help them transition into that study or at least provide them with a foundation in data science.
“Data science is foundational to everything,” Eighmy said. “It’s foundational to health. It’s foundational to technology. It’s foundational to policy and government and social science and the digital humanities, and it crosscuts everything about society — societal benefit, the power of education, discovery.”
Eighmy added that another commitment of Mongeau’s is to ensure UTSA employs data science in an equitable manner across disciplines. The university has already done some of this work, using data science to research inequities in how two vastly different neighborhoods of San Antonio have been recovering from pandemic-related hardships.
Data science in action
Wenbo Wu, chair for the Department of Management Science and Statistics in the Carlos Alvarez College of Business, collaborated with Ying Huang, associate professor in demography in the College for Health, Community and Policy, and Eric Shattuck, assistant professor of research at the UTSA Institute for Health Disparities Research, on a research study to explore certain impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the Jefferson Heights, a neighborhood on San Antonio’s East Side, and Elm Creek, located on the North Side.
The professors used two years’ worth of mobile positioning data collected via the geographic location of a device and survey data from both neighborhoods to analyze the energy hardships, economic mobility and chronic health conditions of residents in each neighborhood, comparing data from before and during the pandemic. They wanted to understand and compare the patterns of residents’ daily lives to see which neighborhoods struggled more as a result of the pandemic and provide some sort of solution to improve their quality of life.
The researchers found that residents of more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods like Jefferson Heights had a more difficult time meeting their basic needs, such as being able to pay mortgage and rent and utility bills. They also found that while job loss varied little between the two neighborhoods, Latino households experienced greater rates of job loss compared to white households.
Based on their findings, which the professors presented to the City of San Antonio, the researchers recommended that economic recovery efforts should focus more on helping people of color — particularly Black people — with financial assistance, job training and employment opportunities.
“Data science is powerful. It’s a meaningful field with powerful methods,” said Wu, a core faculty member of the School of Data Science, in a statement.
This is the kind of work Mongeau wants to help foster at UTSA.
Mongeau said our awareness of data science has grown as our use of digital data — text, audio and image — has increased with the internet and social media becoming integral to people’s lives.
“Data science is about how to extract value from that data,” he said.
The term was first used in 1985 and a 2001 paper proposed it as a new field, Mongeau said. It is really about how to analyze data using computational thinking, statistical analysis and other methods.
Still, Mongeau has not left his poetic beginnings behind. He sees poetry in data.
“If you think about it, one of these meta or macro statements about data is it helps us to better understand human nature, society, the economy,” he said. “Poetry is the expression of the human experience and trying to understand it.”