Music initially drew Arlyn Burgess into the fold of data science. While working in the music department at the University of Virginia, she conducted a project about whether the temperature in a given city had an impact on the tempo of music that residents listened to.
As she polished her work, she kept hearing about the “data revolution” — and then saw a job opening for the brand-new Data Science Institute (DSI).
She got the job, suffice it to say, and became the first full-time employee of DSI, quickly acquiring an appreciation for the phrase “from the ground up.”
On her first day, when she walked in to have a meeting with the founding director Don Brown, he said, “Welcome to DSI. Your first job is to go get yourself some furniture.”
Arlyn laughs and says she has a photograph of her first office, which was just a snack table, a wire-rimmed chair and her own computer that she’d brought from home.
“We literally started from nothing,” she says. “Absolutely nothing. It was just a set of ideas. But it was this whole idea, the groundswell of faculty getting really excited about the potential of the DSI and then the support of the administration at the top levels, that made it grow exponentially.”
As the DSI continued to grow, Arlyn shepherded the development of both the intangible (the Master of Science in Data Science program) and the tangible (the physical space of the DSI itself).
She says that when people visit Dell, the building that houses the DSI, she loves hearing them say that it looks like a startup. “We got this idea of reimagining this space that was both in the middle of Grounds, so it was a part of the history and tradition that this University is so grounded in, but at the same time, it was a totally new and different space that had that tech feel,” she says.
“And our students hang out here all the time. From the tables to the direction of the conference room to the orientation of the Data Wall, everything was very much designed for how we could create a collaborative environment that feels open.”
While she began at the DSI by getting the MSDS program off the ground and outfitting the physical space, Arlyn’s current work is focused on both internal and external strategic partnerships. Internally, she works to connect all of the different departments across Grounds with the DSI; externally, she invites state and local governments and industry partners to collaborate with the DSI.
“I see a potential for people coming to this University to have an unbelievable skillset that will be useful to you in the market regardless of what it is that you do.”
Every day at the DSI is a little bit different, which is a feature of her work that Arlyn enjoys. “There is no normal for what I do,” she says. “I’m never doing the same thing. I’m always doing something new.”
The freshness and excitement that Arlyn experienced on her first day at the DSI continues to define her work. As she looks into the future that lies ahead for the DSI, she sees a bright one.
“I see the chance for integrating some aspect of data science into pretty much all education that the University offers,” she says. “And I see a potential for people coming to this University to have an unbelievable skillset that will be useful to you in the market regardless of what it is that you do. I see the roots just beginning, continuing to branch out.”
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