As the technology within our society advances, the demand for data scientists continues to grow. With median salaries of around $100,910 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and as of May 2021, the field has become one that is extremely attractive and well paid. Although this field is clearly advancing technologically, much growth is necessary in terms of societal advancements. Like all competitive S.T.E.M.-related fields, data science in particular fails to provide underprivileged individuals adequate access and representation into the field.
Launched this year, Pacific Alliance for Low-income Inclusion in Statistics and Data Science (PALiISaDS) is working to overcome just that. Spread across 7 different institutions, one of which is UC Santa Barbara, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program’s goal is to bridge the gap that causes this disparity.
The main issue that PALilSaDS is targeting is that, according to Michael Ludkovski, the program director at UCSB, although jobs within data science are extremely well paid, “three-quarters of them require a master’s or a higher degree. [This means that a lot of] low-income student[s] transferring from a two-year institution often find that [they’re] too late [to] jump on the bandwagon [as they] don’t have the support” necessary to know of the options available to them.
Due to this, a common problem lower-income students encounter is the fact that they are unaware that “they can get the same skill and education while being paid as a TA instead of paying $50,000 a year” to pursue a professional degree, Ludkovski explained. Thus, many students are either unable to take the necessary steps needed or end up enduring extreme financial debt in order to be a successful data scientist.
Since PALiISaDS focuses on bridging this gap in knowledge and resources, the program targets low-income third-year and transfer students, providing them with support through workshops, seminars, faculty and peer mentoring, in addition to offering them need-based scholarships and graduate school applications for up to three years.
According to Ludkovski, not only are students given the financial support necessary to pursue a higher education, but they are also given the resources necessary to make pursuing an education more affordable and easier. Ludkovski explained that the alliance’s “target is to have over half” of their graduates to decide to pursue a master’s degree or Ph.D., as they understand that a lot of their students “can get a really good job, just coming out of undergrad, and might decide that that’s the best route for them[selves].” The key principle of this program, however, is to provide data science students with the support that will allow them to make this decision themselves.
In addition to providing the necessary support to create an equitable field, other professors at UCSB have also been working to establish programs to help grow the industry in a way that understands the nuance and necessity of equity that comes with data science. In 2020, Sharon Tettegah introduced the Student’s Engagement & Enrichment in Data Science (S.E.E.D.S.) program in order to apply diverse perspectives to data science as students pursue their undergraduate degrees. Tettegah, the conceptual architect for the program and current director of the Center for Black Studies Research, proposed S.E.E.D.S. due to her beliefs on data.
“Data provides a new lens for viewing the world,” Tettegah said. “The questions of where we choose to turn this lens, who gets to look through this lens, who gets to look through this lens and what new steps society takes based on the information provided by this lens are some of the most important ones we could ask. S.E.E.D.S. is unique in the world in taking this question head on.”
Understanding this need for diverse individuals when analyzing data, S.E.E.D.S. was created to provide the necessary support to students with similar beliefs to create adequate change in the field. According to the current co-directors of the program, Tettegah and Timothy Sherwood, the program is described through four pillars: “mentoring by a researcher, discussion forums, skill development and practice [through software carpentry here at UCSB and other places] and participation in symposia.”
The program, which currently consists of around 20 to 25 students, supports “the students with small group mentoring, a stipend, skill development and exposure to diverse content” in addition to providing them with “a living and learning community here at UCSB.” Tettegah and Sherwood said that they hope, whether their students go on to graduate school or go into industry, that they gain “methodological skills and ethnic studies knowledge … directly helpful in their careers.”
Although the field of data science still has a lot of room for improvement — whether that be technologically, analytically or equitably — UCSB, alongside other campuses across the country, is working toward stimulating the necessary change through supportive programs.
To apply to PALilSaDS: www.paliisads.org/apply
To learn more about SEEDS: www.cbsr.ucsb.edu/seeds