UVA’s School of Data Science Honors the Class of 2024

May 19, 2024
Kevin Lin and Don Brown
Kevin Lin, one of three members of the inaugural class of Ph.D. recipients at the School of Data Science, is honored during graduation as his faculty advisor, Don Brown, looks on. (Photo by Alyssa Brown)

After completing a rigorous curriculum focused on a wide range of cutting-edge data science subjects and following the presentation of capstone projects or dissertation defenses, there was only one thing left for the class of 2024 to do: receive their diplomas and celebrate their new status as graduates of the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science.

Sunday’s diploma ceremony was held at Old Cabell Hall and followed UVA’s Academic Procession and Final Exercises, which took place on the Lawn.  

This year’s graduation marked 10 years since the data science master's program launched in 2014, with degrees then offered by the Data Science Institute, the precursor to the School of Data Science.  

In the decade that followed, data science graduation ceremonies featured only the conferral of master’s degrees. But this year, for the first time since the doctoral program in data science was launched in fall 2022, three students were hooded for a Ph.D.: Kevin Lin, Saurav Sengupta, and Jiahao Tian

"At its core, the degree is all about innovation and creativity," said Thomas Stewart, an associate professor of data science and director of the doctoral program. "It's about changing how we practice and think about data science. Because of the research and writing of Jiahao, of Saurav, of Kevin, someone, somewhere, sometime in the future will collect and analyze data, and they will do it differently because of the work of these students."

Lin also received the Z Society's Edgar F. Shannon Award, given to the exemplary graduating student from each school at UVA.

Ahead of the hooding ceremony and diploma presentations, Jeffrey Blume, the Quantitative Foundation Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs in Data Science, who served as master of ceremonies, kicked off the festivities with a tribute to the graduates, in the style of Dr. Seuss: “Oh, the places you’ll go! You'll be ready. You're able to bring to the table the best kind of fable. As the chapters of variance and bias unfold, you weave a story of accuracy, calibration untold.”

Don Brown, senior associate dean for research and Quantitative Foundation Distinguished Professor in Data Science, led efforts to launch the master's program 10 years earlier as founding director of the Data Science Institute. In welcome remarks, he praised the commitment and hard work that were required of graduates to successfully complete their programs. 

"Remember back to this perseverance and grit that you've shown and demonstrated throughout your career, and, in fact, use it for life-long learning," he said. 

The graduation ceremony honored nearly 100 master’s degree recipients who completed their courses of study either through the residential or online programs.

As their names were called by Prince Afriyie, an associate professor of data science and director of the residential program, and Jonathan Kropko, a Quantitative Foundation Associate Professor of Data Science and online program director, each student savored the moment they had worked so hard to achieve, taking the stage and accepting their diploma scrolls from Dean Phil Bourne.  

A day rich in pageantry also featured powerful messages to the new graduates aimed at empowering them to make the most of the data science education and skill set they acquired.

Commencement speaker Heidi Lanford urged the class of 2024 to remember the importance of effectively communicating their data and findings, particularly how they can be used by policymakers, clients, and other audiences to make better decisions — the “now what?” question, as she called it.

“In my career, I often see struggles in the acceptance of data or analytics — not by the data scientists, the statisticians, or the engineers but those who should be applying data to change the way they do their jobs, think about a problem, or a decision, or an action they should take. For us, the conclusions we’d like people to draw from our data and analysis are so crystal clear. However, this truth may not be so obvious to your audience — or they don’t want to hear it,” she said.  

Heidi Lanford speaks at graduation.
Heidi Lanford, a School of Data Science advisory board member, delivers the commencement address at the School's 2024 graduation ceremony. (Photo by Alyssa Brown)

Lanford emphasized that data scientists who can also tell compelling stories about their work will be better positioned to make an impact on society.

“I realize that some of you may be starting a new job next week, and some of you are still looking. But let me reassure you, your skill sets are more valuable than ever today, especially if you can master the ‘now what?’ — which is communicating the truth in a way that inspires others to take action,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of fellow students, Alexa Owen, vice president of the Graduate Data Science Council, commended the collaborative spirit that the School fostered and the friendships that were formed.

“I think where the School of Data Science succeeded most was showing its students that we don’t have to accomplish anything alone,” Owen said, describing the many group activities that helped forge lasting bonds among the graduating class.

Owen also emphasized the responsibility she and her classmates now had as they leave UVA.

"It is our job to take what we have learned during our time in the School of Data Science and do good, be good, and set a good example not only for ourselves but the generations that follow us," she said. 

Three master’s students received School awards. Elisabeth Waldron, of the residential program, and Abigail Snyder, an online student, were each selected as recipients of the Wood Family Award, given to outstanding master’s students who demonstrate superior performance in the program. The award is named for the family of Oscar Wood, a longtime School of Data Science advisory board member, and was announced by Arlyn Burgess, associate dean of administration.  

Ryan Lipps received the Wanda Sanford Award from Dahlia Hylton, associate dean of student affairs. The award is given to one residential master’s student who exemplifies team spirit, a quality Sanford was known for during her tenure with the Data Science Institute and the School of Data Science before her retirement in 2021.  

As the afternoon ceremony wound down, and the class of 2024 prepared to leave Grounds and begin the next chapter of their data science careers, Bourne, dean of the School of Data Science since its founding in 2019, offered parting words. He invoked the classic rock anthem "Hotel California" by The Eagles in his farewell to students, saying: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

"You are one of us," Bourne told the new graduates. "Come back and visit, share with us your successes, and influence the future generations of data scientists yet to come. But above all else, take care of yourselves and everyone around you. Onwards."

Phil Bourne and students at graduation
Dean Phil Bourne, front, walks with faculty at UVA's Academic Procession and Final Exercises. (Photo by Alyssa Brown)
Students clap at the graduation ceremony.
Data science graduates take part in UVA's Final Exercises ahead of the School of Data Science diploma ceremony. (Photo by Alyssa Brown)


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