Robert McGrath: Academic Director and Professor, Data Science Philosopher, Coach, Mentor and Caring Dad

Examining these human histories of early data scientists, some commonalities appear clear. One, most of us here didn’t start out to be data scientists, two, we tend to have worldviews that are more horizontal and convergent than vertical and specialized, and three we are innately curious. My own path has taken me from the liberal arts to STEM and now back full circle into examining what it means to be human in a world of growing automation and ubiquitous technology.

The short story begins in middle school when I was delving into creative writing, but then got exposed to my school’s first set of networked Tandy computers. It was like a new world opened up. I learned to code in BASIC and spent hours of free time in the lab. For my final project, I wrote a program that could send messages to classmates (passing notes) and put them into folders where you could respond to them. I called it a message sender but was ultimately failed for not doing the assigned task (boring).

My adult path took me a number of places until I realized that helping people was a big part of my lexicon. I came to focus on health care, especially for children with rare and difficult health conditions. I spent time in small, community providers and also a large, national insurer that exposed me to the power of big data. Our tools were limited and the process messy, but the potential…

Some years later, when I was in the New Hampshire Governor’s office, I realized that our elected leaders in the Legislature were arguing points largely based on experience and rhetoric, yet here I knew there was all this data that, if we could find a way to bring it together in a digestible form, could allow conversations to stem from more objective foundations. I then spent the next years in academia promoting the use of data at the intersection of application.

Fast forward to today. We at the University of New Hampshire began one of the first 25 Masters degrees in Analytics and Data Science programs. We did so after a year of long exploration of this “new’ field. Was it old wine in a new bottle or something new? We knew this field was different and was characterized by a few things: speed of evolution, technology democratization, disruption, and uncertainty. My multifocal thinking again came into play and we set out and successfully created a program that was immersive, short to graduation, cost-effective, and nimble enough to keep pace with industry while being very high quality.

I say that at times I am a coach, at times a mentor and at times a caring parent to my students. I believe data science is a team sport and a life-long practice. It is, at the end of the day, about people and their environments. It is about making life better, not just faster or cheaper. It requires deep critical thinking and deep caring about how, but also what and why you do. For many students, this is a critical shift in thinking.

Two quotes sum up my philosophic approach to my work. One by Mahatma Gandhi and one by Daniel Burrus,

Daniel aptly wrote: “When people talk about “the next big thing,” they’re never thinking big enough. It’s not a lack of imagination; it’s a lack of observation…the future is always within sight…”

Mahatama told us to “be the change we wish to see in the world”.

For me, it’s about having a broad worldview but also paying attention to the now. We need to think boldly but thoughtfully and critically about what’s next and embrace aspiration and lifelong learning toward being positive catalysts for the future.

Meet Robert McGrath: Academic Director and Professor, Data Science Philosopher, Coach, Mentor and Caring Dad

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