Data is increasingly important in today’s business, science, and social science professions. It informs decisions, confirms hypotheses, and can even predict future behaviors. Data scientists who can harness this powerful tool are in high demand.

According to Glassdoor’s Best Jobs in America 2019, data scientist is at the top. 

The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is providing hands-on training for undergraduate students to be successful in this booming profession. DataBridge is an undergraduate research experience, led by the University Libraries’ Anne M. Brown and managed by Jonathan Briganti, that gives students interested in working with data a chance to increase knowledge and hone skills by helping graduate students and faculty with data challenges.

DataBridge students are first trained in data-logic skills and then are paired with a Virginia Tech client and project. Clients can be faculty members or graduate students with specific data-related or ill-defined problems, such as an unexplained data leak or inconsistent data collection over many years, or university offices or centers that need support with specific projects. Students work autonomously then gather weekly in the University Libraries’ Data Visualization Studio to discuss progress and challenges; often students from different disciplines collaborate to create solutions. 

DataBridge students act as consultants, project managers, problem-solvers, analysts, programmers, cleaners, collectors, and visualizers of data. 

“We have first-year to fourth-year students from many disciplines on our DataBridge team. Students come from biochemistry, computational modeling and data analytics, business information technology, and computer science,” said Brown. “If you’re a theater major and interested in learning how to work with data, we’ll teach you how to solve data-related problems.” 

“We demystify data and programming. It’s not scary. We make it approachable,” said Briganti. “We have an open environment to talk about different kinds of concepts, and we focus on building partnerships across campus to solve data challenges. This works because the library isn’t connected to any one discipline. Students really like working in DataBridge because researchers from a variety of disciplines walk through the door, and students can work on a project that suits or expands their academic interests.”

DataBridge thrives because the University Libraries is open to all students. Research data are generated and used in every department in every college and institute: in the library, every student can find their niche.

Andrew Miller, third-year undergraduate student majoring in systems biology and computer science, loves analyzing trends in data. “I am very interested in using data and math models to explore and model the world,” said Miller. “DataBridge is perfect for me.

“One of my favorite aspects of the job is the spontaneity. Every client has very different requests and tastes,” said Miller. “One of the first consults I did involved hand-combing through 20,000 lines of code. I worked to build a tool to assist in fixing errors in the code.”

LaDale Winling, associate professor of history, is researching the history of political elections in Chicago. He heard about DataBridge through Corrine Guimont, University Libraries’ digital publishing specialist.

“I was eyeing a grant opportunity and needed a partner to help design a database for the elections data,” said Winling. “I was seeking a set of collaborators who were data-savvy, technically expert, and curious about working with humanists.”

Brown, Briganti, and DataBridge students were just the partners he needed. They are creating data schemas, producing visualizations, and doing geospatial analysis for Winling’s research. 

“Collaborations with groups like DataBridge bring together students with a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. This always enriches the research process,” said Winling. “In the specific case of students, combining the creation of new knowledge inherent in research with the pedagogical process of advising and educating students on a project is mutually reinforcing and gives a great two-for-one dynamic to our interactions. I'm very appreciative of the time I get to work with students.”

DataBridge is a mini-laboratory because of the research output, critical thinking, rigor, professionalism, writing skills, and reflection involved in each project. Regardless of discipline, students are immersed in the research process and provide data expertise in a real-life environment through hands-on experience.

“We have more work coming through the door every day. We encourage students to join our team and make a difference in Virginia Tech’s research enterprise,” said Briganti. “If students want to work, we have it.”

Miller looks forward to applying his honed data skills to his own business and helping to meet the demand for data analysts.

“After graduation, I hope to find a job in data science, but eventually I hope to run my own data analysis and solution company,” said Miller. “DataBridge has given me real-world practice working with clients and problem solving a variety of consults. This will give me a head start in the ever-competitive working world.”

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