There is a growing need for statisticians and data analysts across all sectors nationwide, as advancements in computational power have afforded researchers the ability to generate and analyze mass quantities of data. To meet the demand, employment opportunities for statisticians are expected to grow by 33 percent within the decade.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Center for Predictive Analytics (C-PAN) is leading a statewide, multi-institutional fellowship program funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through its Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program, award number 2019-67032-31623.
Under the direction of C-PAN Director Carolyn Butts-Wilmsmeyer, PhD, the project entitled, “Preparing Undergraduates for New Frontiers in Data Analysis: Experiential Learning in Applied Statistics (ELIAS) Fellows,” is concurrently training undergraduate students in real-world data analysis and hands-on research in a greenhouse, laboratory or field setting.
Institutional collaborators include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Illinois State University (ISU), Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) and Parkland Community College (PCC). Co-PIs are UIUC’s Martin Bohn, Maria Villamil and Alexander Lipka, with support from NEIU’s Pamela Geddes and ISU’s Nicholas Heller.
“The overall goal of the ELIAS fellowship program is to produce students who can meet the need for an increasingly data-driven workforce, particularly in the life sciences,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer explained. “Upon graduation, students in statistics and data science are placed in multidisciplinary teams consisting of chemists, biologists and business personnel.
“However, current training in data science and statistics often does not occur in laboratory, greenhouse, field or other applied research settings, making it difficult for graduates to understand the limitations in these research environments and to communicate findings across disciplinary bounds. Through this program, students are placed in a two-year, dually immersive research experience in applied statistics/data science and a laboratory, greenhouse or field research environment, based on the students’ interests.”
Fellow Sam Garcia, an environmental science major at NEIU, is in her second year of the program. “I have been passionate about environmental science since I learned about climate change in elementary school,” she recalled. “I particularly became interested in data-driven research, because quantifying and analyzing data brings order and significance to the information that can be found through science.”
Under the mentorship of Dr. Geddes, and in collaboration with Urban Rivers, Garcia is analyzing the effects of artificial floating wetlands on macroinvertebrate communities in the Chicago River.
“The ELIAS program has provided me the opportunity to carry out my own independent research project which is preparing me for graduate school,” Garcia said. “After graduate school, I plan to pursue a research career in the marine or atmospheric science field at NOAA, NASA or a similar organization. My long-term intentions are to use science as a tool to incite change that will help preserve the environment.”
Butts-Wilmsmeyer notes the USDA’s recognition of the need for programs that support the recruitment and training of traditionally underrepresented groups in the food and agricultural sciences. As such, the ELIAS Fellows’ recruitment efforts emphasize women and minorities, as well as transfer students from community colleges.
“While the fellowship program is open to all students in the agricultural and life sciences, and all fellows will be provided with unfailing support, we recognize that there may be some hurdles which female students, transfer students and underrepresented minorities may face at a higher frequency than their classmates,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer explained. “Our mentor team actively works with all of our fellows to identify ways to overcome any hurdles they may face during the completion of their degree and progression toward their desired careers.”
Participating students receive full funding for their research, as well as a $7,250 stipend each year of the fellowship. They will present their findings at UIUC Agronomy Day, Undergraduate Research Symposium’s at their respective institutions and at a scientific conference of their choosing.