Health data science program to launch

by Berit Svenson | 10/13/17 2:10am

Beginning next fall, Dartmouth’s graduate program in quantitative biomedical sciences will offer a new master’s degree program in health data science. The creation of this degree is a response to the market’s increase in demand for data scientists, according to Todd MacKenzie, professor of biomedical data science and medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine, and Kristine Giffin, curriculum director of Dartmouth’s graduate program in quantitative biomedical sciences and instructor of molecular and systems biology.

MacKenzie said the new master’s degree is designed to provide students with the skill set necessary to thrive in the work force.

“Data science programs have been popping up at a rapid rate,” he added. “We, at Dartmouth, thought we could put together a very good data science program ourselves.”

The 15-month program requires students to complete nine core courses and nine electives, ranging from computer science to epidemiology, Giffin said. For fall 2018, Giffin said she and her colleagues expect 12 to 15 students to participate in the program. She noted that the program will provide “students the opportunity to get a different type of education in interdisciplinary fields of science, data science specifically.”

To determine the curriculum of the program, MacKenzie followed a bit of an unorthodox path.

“I went through job [advertisements] actually,” MacKenzie said. “I went on LinkedIn, Monster and other job sites under ‘data scientists’ and tried to determine what skills employers want.”

These skills include machine learning, data wrangling and data visualization. The courses offered through the quantitative biomedical sciences master’s program will “reflect what the market wants,” MacKenzie said.

The field of data science is becoming integral to a growing number of industries, according to Alexander Titus, a Ph.D. student at Geisel.

However, Titus explained that there is greater demand for quantitative analysis skills than there are people with the necessary abilities.

“I interned at Amazon last summer because of the strong set of skills I developed in quantitative biomedical sciences,” he explained. “Every field is becoming much more automated.”

“[The new master’s degree] will welcome [students from] broad backgrounds, and you can do a lot with it afterwards,” said Titus. “It’s open to people that don’t necessarily have extensive quantitative training.”

A biology and biochemistry major as an undergraduate student at University of Puget Sound, Titus explained that students do not have to have a background in computer science or statistics to be eligible for a post-graduate degree in quantitative biomedical sciences. He added that more students will most likely find the new master’s degree appealing as it is a 15-month program, rather than four or five years.

According to MacKenzie, the primary difference between the new master’s degree and the existing Ph.D. program is that students earning the master’s degree will go on to obtain a job that utilizes data science after approximately one year of training, rather than remaining in the realm of academia.

Giffin added that the new program could possibly influence the overall structure of Geisel.

“Because of the evolution of this degree, not only will it broaden the depth of biomedical research at Dartmouth, but it will add to fields within the community as well,” Giffin said. “The [Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center] itself could potentially benefit from the research.”

She said a team under the quantitative biomedical sciences umbrella has been working hard to develop this program.

“We’re excited and looking forward to the applications that are coming down the road,” Giffin said.

Correction Appended (Oct. 14, 2017): The article originally labeled Alexander Titus as a MED '18, when he is actually a Ph.D. student.