Associate professor Brian Davison talks to the audience about Liangjie Hong, the head of Data Science at Etsy Inc. on April 12, 2017, in Packard Laboratory. Hong was a student of Davison's at Lehigh. (Vincent Liu/B&W Staff)

Alumni return to campus as Data X speakers

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As part of Lehigh’s Data X initiative, professionals in data fields are invited to present their area of study to students on campus.

The most recent speaker, Liangjie Hong, ’13G, is head of data science at Etsy Inc. Hong spoke at Lehigh in Packard Laboratory on Wednesday, April 12, about the future of data in professional work. He said many of the universities he’s spoken at are directly targeting data education, and the Data X initiative is necessary to keep up with his prediction that data-driven work will be “everywhere” within 10 years.

“When I was in a Ph.D program here, data didn’t exist like it does now,” Hong said. “We would talk about it, but it was very different and is growing quickly.”

Professor Brian Davison, one of Hong’s former professors, introduced him at the event and said the importance of data will become fully realized as new industries begin to understand and benefit from data-driven decision making.

“At the same time, more people will be able to better understand, analyze and visualize their data as the computational tools get better and become more commonplace,” Davison said.

Lehigh’s Data X initiative was developed and implemented because of student demand, Data X director Dan Lopresti said. He said students are continuing to gravitate toward data-based fields, and data is becoming relevant across all fields as technology expands.

“It is not just the computer science and engineering-based majors that we are talking about,” Lopresti said. “There is not a single major here that is unaffected by this information.”

Using self-driving cars as an example, Lopresti said data education will affect fields people might not think of at first such as social sciences. 

“If self-driving cars take off, suddenly we have millions of truck drivers unemployed,” Lopresti said. “This then turns into a research area that would be categorized as a social science issue.”

The initial step in Data X is making Lehigh known in the field of data work. Lopresti said hiring new faculty, offering new minors and majors, and restructuring courses to implement more data use will help Lehigh become a significant university in data education.

By bringing speakers from data-driven fields, Lopresti said he hopes student interest on campus will grow. He said the data initiatives have generated growth in the number and scale of companies who have begun on-campus recruiting such as Google.

Bringing in alumni to speak at these seminars is key for two reasons, Lopresti said. It allows students to hear about cool work graduates are doing, and it brings graduates back to show them what current students are working on.  

“A lot of these people haven’t been back for 20 years,” Lopresti said. “By bringing them back, they can also learn about Lehigh.”  

One fear students may have is the seminars are too technical, and they won’t get anything out of it. Lopresti said he disagrees.

“Most of (the seminars) are not super technical and are actually quite accessible,” Lopresti said. “Of the seminars we do in my department, 90 percent of them are something a freshman or sophomore undergrad could go to and really gain something from. It’s not all about computer science, and I really think everyone could benefit from these seminars.”

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