January 29, 2023
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By the numbers: Program encompasses math, statistics and data science

Aleksey Polunchenko, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, teaches a graduate level statistics class at Whitney Hall, Nov. 6, 2019. Aleksey Polunchenko, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, teaches a graduate level statistics class at Whitney Hall, Nov. 6, 2019.
Aleksey Polunchenko, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, teaches a graduate level statistics class at Whitney Hall, Nov. 6, 2019. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

A complex discipline in its own right, mathematics touches upon many others, as researchers explore truths and trends contained within statistics and other data.

While housed in Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Mathematics and Statistics provides useful courses and services throughout Binghamton University’s schools and colleges. Previously known as the Department of Mathematical Sciences, the new name reflects the growing demand for courses in data science and statistics, according to Professor Xingye Qiao.

“If you are a student with an interest in statistics or related areas, if you’re a faculty member in need of statistical help or if you are in any way curious about statistics, the Mathematics and Statistics Department is the place to come,” said Professor Marcin Mazur, the department chair. “We offer various levels (of coursework) and valuable expertise in this field.”

While pure mathematics remains an essential part of the department, the past decade has seen the addition of a new master’s degree and a bachelor’s track in statistics, and the number of statistics faculty has been growing. Faculty members have been actively engaged in transdisciplinary areas of excellence (TAE) in data science and health sciences, as well as various research centers, where they engage in statistical and data-related work.

“The reason we changed the department’s name was to embrace and convey to the outside world that we are actually two departments in one,” explained Mazur.

The department works collaboratively with other schools that share common interests; one example is the Master of Science in Data Analytics program, a collaboration with the School of Management and the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science.

The department also houses statistical consulting services that help graduate students and faculty members across campus with their statistical needs. While research methods courses are included in many academic programs, the emergence of massive and complicated data sets over the past two decades opens up a new range of opportunities and challenges.

New tools are needed to analyze and identify patterns and gain insights from these data sets. That’s where data science comes in.

Formed in 2018, the Data Science TAE brings together experts in multiple fields, from mathematics and statistics to computer science, systems science, economics, geography and more. The advent of digital humanities, which use data approaches in humanities research, has also opened up new transdisciplinary frontiers.

Harpur College of Arts and Sciences also offers a new minor in digital and data science. Although separate from mathematics and statistics, one of its two coordinators is a lecturer in the department.

“It’s really campus-wide, this movement to embrace data science in research, in education, in all kinds of ways. Efforts in the Mathematics and Statistics Department plays a leading role in this movement because mathematics and statistics are part of the foundation of data science,” said Qiao, who chairs the Data Science TAE.

Aiding researchers

The statistical consulting services were the brainchild of Professor Anton Schick, although it has grown since Mei-Hsiu Chen became director in 2017. Since 2019, she has been a co-principle Investigator in a National Science Foundation-funded project on “Mechanobiology of Myofibroblast Behavior in Health and Disease” led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Interim Dean of the Graduate School Gretchen Mahler. This fall, Chen began working for the services full-time, reflecting the growing need for the services across all of Binghamton’s colleges and schools.

Chen works with faculty and graduate students from all of Binghamton’s schools and colleges, and a wide range of degree programs. Psychology and biological sciences are frequent customers, but requests also come in from the School of Management, Watson College, Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, too.

“The idea is to promote research on campus, to see if we can give a boost to papers to make them more publishable by using valid quantitative methods,” she explained. “I’m also trying to improve collaborations among the statisticians and other researchers on campus.”

Faculty or graduate students can make a request for help, whether prior to the data-gathering process or after, as they process the data to address their research questions. In one such project, Chen worked with Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Sean Massey on massive criminal justice datasets concerning larceny complaints, arrests and the outcome of larceny cases in the city of Binghamton.

Chen has a personal interest in using statistical methods to identify and address possible cases of societal injustice, and she works with Massey on other projects as well, including one on transgender and LGBTQ adults and another on student disciplinary approaches in New York state’s public school system. In their collaborations, Massey is focused on the research questions. Chen provides the expertise to dig deep into complex databases and make numerical sense of the relationships they show, she said.

Not all projects are intensive. Sometimes she directs graduate students to statistical tools they can use while working on their dissertation research, software they can explore while analyzing their data or assistance with interpreting results.

Don’t be afraid of asking for help if you need it, Chen advised. In fact, the earlier you make a request, the better the service can help you achieve your research objective.

“The worst-case scenario is that you have an idea, go out and gather data, and then it turns out that these data won’t address any of your objectives,” she said. “We hope that having these services on campus will eliminate some of those unnecessary struggles that researchers face.”