New Data Science Major Sets the College Apart

The fast-growing field of data science gives people the tools to find patterns and make predictions from the torrent of data that surrounds us

Alex Bingham ’26 works on an assignment during a statistics class in Davis Science Center taught by Assistant Professor of Statistics Annie Tang. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Ashley L. Conti and Gabe Souza
October 2, 2023

In a world where data collection and analysis is ever more prevalent, it’s crucial that students have the tools they need to make sense of the constant torrent of information. 

At Colby, they do.  

The College, which will boast five professors in the Department of Statistics beginning this fall, is committed to making a strong department even stronger. This fall Colby students will be the first liberal arts college students in Maine and among the first in the country to have the option of majoring in data science. The new major will help meet the growing demand for data scientists across a spectrum of industries. 

“Data are everywhere. Every field has data in some way, shape, or form. And the job market and the demand for people who know how to deal with data and make sense of data has just skyrocketed in the last 20 years. That’s why it’s so important,” Associate Professor of Statistics Jim Scott said. “There’s high demand for people that have statistical knowledge and know-how.” 

Defining data science

Data science is the combination of mathematics, computer science, statistics, and domain expertise, with a goal of finding patterns, deriving conclusions, and making predictions from the available information. Businesses, artificial intelligence, healthcare, government, and private industry are among the sectors that are increasingly reliant on data—and data scientists—to make good decisions and chart their future course.  

Students pay close attention during a statistics class taught by Liam O’Brien, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Statistics. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Although it is a fairly new field of knowledge, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is a fast-growing and important one. The job outlook for data scientists is strong, with the field predicted to grow faster than almost any other field over the next decade. 

The College has offered a data science minor since 2018, thanks to a $2-million gift from Trustee Rick McVey, the founder, chairman, and CEO of financial technology firm MarketAxess who supported the creation of a multidisciplinary data science initiative along with providing funding for the women’s lacrosse team. 

At that time, statistics was part of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, but even then, faculty figured that it was just a first step toward eventually offering a major. 

“For years, the major has been something we’ve been thinking about,” said Liam O’Brien, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Statistics. 

Liam O’Brien, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Statistics, said that faculty members at the College have been thinking for years about adding a data science major. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

For one thing, a dedicated major would allow students who are already focusing on data science to more accurately label their skill set for the benefit of future employers or academic institutions. 

“What it really does is let students have a little more agency in what their diploma says,” Scott said. 

Expanding opportunities

Alex Bingham ’26, one of the first students to declare data science as a major, said that he is excited to have the opportunity to do so. 

“I like how Colby is expanding its opportunities in innovative areas such as this,” he said. “[Data science] is a very useful skill to have in the modern world. And it is the perfect cornerstone of an overall liberal arts education as it pairs well with just about every other subject area.” 

Alex Bingham ’26, a newly declared data science major, works on an assignment during a recent statistics class. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Bingham, who is also interested in international relations, hopes to be able to combine those interests in the future. 

“I like the idea of using available information to deduce truth or make predictions about the future,” he said. 

To meet student demand and to help support the major, Colby has hired Assistant Professor Xi Ning and Assistant Professor Annie Tang, who joined the Department of Statistics this fall. Scott and O’Brien said that they are happy to have new faculty members on the team, which also includes Assistant Professor of Statistics Jerzy Wieczorek

“It’s really hard to convince statisticians to be in academia,” Scott said. “It’s really special that we have so many statisticians here at Colby. It really does make us unique and different in many ways. There are only a handful of liberal arts colleges that have the same sort of size that we do.” 

Interdisciplinary by design

Something else noteworthy about the new major is the way that it’s organized. Though it’s administered through the Department of Statistics, it’s a true collaboration among the Computer Science, Mathematics, and Statistics departments. 

In most other institutions that have a data science major, that is not the case, 

Data science is a combination of mathematics, computer science, statistics, and domain expertise, with a goal of finding patterns, deriving conclusions, and making predictions from the available information. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

“What we have is pretty unique, in terms of the real, true collaboration that we have,” Scott said. 

That decision wasn’t made by chance. 

“We recognize that we’re not computer scientists, and not mathematicians, and that we need them to be involved, and we’ve done that,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a good model, and there’s been a lot of interest in it.” 

The Colby data science major also has a strong emphasis on ethics, with students required to take an entire course rather than just a unit in a class. 

“I tell my classes that if you’ve collected the data in a biased way, it doesn’t matter—you’re done. There’s no way in your analysis phase to fix that. You need to throw it out and get new data,” Scott said. “And are you storing it properly? Is it anonymous? Is it confidential when it’s supposed to be? Those sorts of things are really important.”  

At the College, the nature of a liberal arts education will help give data science majors a way to differentiate themselves from those at other institutions, who may only focus on statistics, math, and computer science courses. 

“By nature, data science is interdisciplinary,” Scott said. “You don’t come to Colby to just be siloed in a particular department. You come to Colby because you want a liberal arts education. And hopefully, a lot of the data science majors will be applying those skills in humanities, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences. That’s what we hope and what we expect.”