MTSU Data Science program preps first graduate certificate cohort with real-world Second Harvest partnership

May 03, 2021 at 12:03 pm by WGNS

Frank Ellmo, at right in foreground, senior director of operations at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, explains the nonprofit’s operations to Ryan Otter, foreground left, co-director of the MTSU Data Science Institute, and some of the students in the inaugural cohort in MTSU’s data science graduate certificate program during the group’s April 11 visit to Second Harvest’s warehouse location in Nashville, Tenn. Second Harvest provided the group access to some of its databases as part of the students’ final class project. (MTSU photo by Charlie Apigian)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — “Big data” is making big strides at Middle Tennessee State University, with the university’s first cohort of students set to earn a new data science graduate certificate this month following the fall launch of the program.

The group of 20 students are nearing completion of an accelerated four-course, two-semester program that seeks to “upskill” participants by providing online instruction in data science techniques — data understanding, data exploration, predictive modeling and modeling optimization.

Charlie Apigian, co-director of the MTSU Data Science Institute, said a critical component of the program is real-world, hands-on experience. That’s why this first cohort is working on a project in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, which provided “real data” from its operations for the students to study.

“Our main mission in terms of data science is taking complex data and turning it into actionable information that can add value to an organization,” said Apigian, an information and analytics professor. “Where it becomes important is that students have to understand that whatever model they create, it actually has to mean something.”

And such skills can be invaluable in a job market where entry-level salaries average $70,000 to $85,000 for “data scientists” skilled at analyzing and interpreting mountains of data. That’s increasingly important in a Nashville and Midstate region home to growing health care and financial services companies, logistics and similar industries “that are data driven and are in search of an adequate workforce skilled at handling data for business purposes.”

“Right now, they can’t hire enough people in data science, computer science and information systems to keep up with the demand,” Apigian said. “So they’re hiring people from outside. If we don’t have the programs here, the really smart kids from our area are leaving the state. We don’t want to lose those kids anymore.”

MTSU’s strong investment into data science in recent years has quickly morphed from a Data Science Institute launched a few years ago; to an undergraduate degree and graduate certificate program started this past fall; to incorporation of data science into its doctoral program in computational science — and hopefully a master’s degree by 2022.

And the graduate certificate courses would be incorporated into the proposed masters’ program, making for a seamless transition for students interested in pursuing the advanced degrees.

“We know if those kids stay here and go to MTSU, they will be the skilled workforce of the future for the Middle Tennessee region. We have to meet the demand and create that homegrown talent pool,” Apigian said.

The final class of the first graduate certificate cohort is being taught by institute co-director and biology professor Ryan Otter, project manager for the class, while Apigian meets with the cohort on Sundays as “the help desk” to assist with problems surrounding coding and other technical challenges.

Student and alumnus Vince Herbert, 32, who lives outside Austin, Texas, said the faculty support within the program “has been unbelievable. Their commitment to students is really unmatched, and it’s something that not every school has. I highly recommend it for people, even if they don’t have an analytics background.”

Herbert said he was drawn to the program because he uses data a lot as a program manager in supply chain management at tech giant Apple, a role he’s served for about two years. The Missouri native earned his MBA from MTSU in 2018 and enjoyed his analytics course during that time. The graduate certificate program reenforced that interest, and he plans to pursue a master’s in data science if such a proposed program is approved at MTSU.

“After the first week in the program, I was able to apply these techniques at work,” said Herbert, whose wife also graduated from MTSU with a psychology degree. “After a few days, you start seeing how beneficial and how impactful it can be.”

For more information about MTSU’s Data Science programs, visit or email Apigian at or Otter at

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