Data Science: Behind BU’s Newest Major

Photo Credit: Boston University Computing & Data Science Website

By Nick Kolev
Boston University News Service

The Class of 2026 is the newest cohort to enter Boston University’s campus, and it comes with the inaugural class of Data Science majors at the Center for Computing and Data Sciences.

The new major has been in the works for some time — with the Faculty for Computing and Data Sciences formed in 2019 and the Center for Computing and Data Sciences opened this Spring after two years of construction.

CDS Associate Provost Azer Bestavros, a professor of computer science and the founding director of the Hariri Institute for Computing, said the central focus of the discipline was using data for a wide variety of applications, compared to the more logistical nature of computer science.

“How do we extract knowledge from the data?” he said. “It’s not about designing the next type of social network, but it’s about taking data from the social networks and coming up with intelligent models or coming up with conclusions about the world we live in.”

Bestavros said a key aspect of data sciences is that they can be used to enhance other fields, such as healthcare and journalism, which makes it a unique academic discipline.

“It’s actually a field that transforms other fields,” Bestavros said. “We can talk about it as data science, but we can also talk about it as environmental data science or public health data science, or marketing data science. You name it.”

BU is early in offering a major in the field, Bestavros said, adding that there are fewer data science degree programs than computer science courses currently offered in U.S. universities.

He said BU had begun its data science research program around 2010, but it wasn’t until 2018 that BU established a task force to develop CDS and ultimately announced the formation of the department a year later.

The CDS building, which will be located at 665 Commonwealth Ave., will offer spaces for classrooms, offices and research along with gathering spaces for students. 

Bestavros said the building will also house the mathematics, statistics, and computer science departments, allowing easier collaboration.

“That’s important because these three fields … think of them as cousins, they’re siblings almost,” he said. “So it’s actually good for us to be together as faculty and students.”

Bestavros noted an interesting element of data sciences was that the field attracted students from different demographics compared to the computer science program. 

“What we’re seeing is a lot of interest in data science from a student population that is different from those who chose engineering or computer science,” he said. “This is something BU has done very well, which is to recognize that there is demand.”

One interesting statistic, Bestavros said, was that the percentage of women in BU’s data sciences major is twice that of the computer science department.

Alexa Holder, a CDS freshman from Long Island, wrote in an email that she decided to enroll in the major after being introduced to it in high school.

“I chose to study data science because I saw it as an opportunity to join a growing field that is ever-changing, especially with time and new technological developments,” Holder wrote. “It has been an interest of mine since my sophomore year.”

Sam Offsey, a freshman from Lexington majoring in data science, said the cross-disciplinary nature of the field is what appealed to him.

“For me, data science is all about solving problems with technology and how you use technology tools,” he said. “Getting to communicate with all different types of people, technical and non-technical.”

Offsey said he particularly appreciates that students are encouraged to take electives outside of CDS.

“You can kind of follow it where you want within the program, and you aren’t pinned into certain courses in terms of prereqs,” Offsey said. “[There are] different ways for you to explore an application of data science.”

As a member of the inaugural class, Offsey has so far enjoyed the program, as well as the sense of community he feels in his cohort. He thinks the program will grow in popularity as it develops.

“When the building opens in the spring, that’s probably gonna draw a lot of people into it,” he said. “The data science minor as well — I feel like many students will try out a class or two, and then they’ll see those connections as they go, which will drum up more interest.” 

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