David Mongeau was not looking for a job when the University of Texas at San Antonio started recruiting a founding director for its School of Data Science, which welcomes hundreds of students into a new $98.1 million downtown facility in January. But for a full year, the Roadrunners’ recruiter kept calling. Mongeau agreed to talk and soon found himself resigning as executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science for the chance to be a part of something new in the Alamo City. “The thing that attracted me was just the ambition that UTSA and its leadership has,” Mongeau says, adding that it reminded him of his alma mater Carnegie Mellon, which started as a school for “steel mill workers’ children” but has become a top private research institution. Plus, he adds, data science as a field is glaringly lacking in diversity. UTSA is one of the few schools already in a strong position to change that. “It’s very exciting to be a part of this,” he says.
Why has there been a lack of diversity in data science and how can UTSA address that?
One is, I don’t think a high schooler necessarily identifies with data science. They say, ‘I want to be an engineer or a doctor,’ so a lot of it is just getting people to understand the opportunity that exists.
All you have to do is some quick Googling to find the workforce is not diverse at all. Less than 10 percent of those in the workforce are women or people of color. There are a lot of universities that are investing in data science, but their student bodies can’t change that outlook. This school’s can—56 percent of UTSA’s master’s level students are women and 64 percent are Hispanic, Latino or Black. Add them together and we’re close to 72 percent diverse. (Most of the students at the downtown school are master’s level.) It’s exciting to be at a school that can increase the diversity in the workforce.
What do you want potential students to know about data science?
People think data science is just tech firms like Google. It isn’t. Health and life sciences, which are two of the more established sectors in San Antonio, and finance are big industries. And then business to consumer, like grocery stores. HEB, for example, has very sophisticated data scientists. It’s also part of civil engineering and construction and other industries.
Do you care about water quality? Food insecurity? Improved housing? One of the ways to get there is through data science.
I fairly regularly get inquiries from students who saw an article on data science. They may say they’ve been studying biology or civil engineering, can they become a data scientist? And that’s great. If you get a degree in something else and then a master’s in data science, that’s a wonderful combination because then you’re prepared to apply data science to an industry.
Do you see graduates filling jobs locally or being recruited elsewhere?
We want to create opportunity in San Antonio. We are very committed to the city, so that’s why we work so much with local businesses and startups and make regular connections with the city and county. And it’s clear that companies want to know what we’re doing and connect with us, from CEOs all the way to data scientists.
But, to keep students here, we not only have to make known jobs that exist, we also have to attract more businesses to town. Because I can tell you what is already happening is because we have a diverse student body, we have large national companies coming here to hire our students out of San Antonio. And if we don’t have the jobs, they will go somewhere else.
UTSA is one of only five schools of data science in the US Is that right?
Yes. There are a ton of online programs and lots of universities with programs, but only five universities have said this is so important that we’re going to form a school: UTSA, UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Of those, UTSA is the only federally designated Hispanic-serving institution.
Part of my goal for the school is for it to become nationally known. We have the capability of being a leading school and the most diverse school of data science. I want us to not just be preparing people to go out, but to become a destination where people want to come.
Tell us about the new facility downtown, known as San Pedro 1.
It’s flexible and versatile. It has just over 80,000 square feet of classroom, lab and research space, but much of it is flexible and most of the furniture is not stationary.
There’s a café on the first floor with seating outside along San Pedro Creek and a space downstairs that could be opened up for performances and events. We could host a university music ensemble and if we did that, we would always fold in data science. How do you capture the audio and do some sort of research project based on the music?
We have four data science neighborhoods in the building. Each is unique, but in the middle, each has four lab spaces. We tried to put groups in those that naturally work together—bioinformatics and computational biology, for example—plus at least one that might not normally work with them, like robotics. Those people may not normally speak to one another, and we want to see what happens when they do. Each also has a lounge that’s not just for faculty but for everyone, as well as workstations throughout.
We have technical demo spaces for companies to demonstrate their products, whether explaining what a software product can do or showing off a new product. Plus, there are places for student competitions, including those grueling 48-hour datathons.
There’s an area where walls can come down, and it can seat 300 people. We’re hoping that the school becomes a destination that people want to use for conferences, events and competitions. We already have several events planned in 2023.
We have four industry suites and 17 industry offices and we’re in discussion with companies that want to locate there.
The National Security Collaboration Center will anchor the top three floors. One of those, the fifth floor, is for federal systems partners, or federal agencies that will have offices here. That will be a secure floor, but there will be classrooms up there so agencies can connect with students. We want people to interact here.
Resume: UC Berkeley, The Ohio State University, Battelle Memorial Institute, Bell Labs
Education: Bachelor’s, Carnegie Mellon; master’s, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; MBA, Purdue University
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.