Each week, staff writer Paul Wood profiles a high-tech difference-maker. This wekk, meet WADE FAGEN-ULMSCHNEIDER, who serves as the lead instructor of a data-structures class at the University of Illinois and works with students on data visualizations with over 10 million interactions. He has been ranked as an excellent instructor by his students for the past 10 years. Click here for an entertaining example of the work he does with students.
Where did you get your degrees, and what brought you to Illinois?
My parents were government/military, so I was a bit of a nomad growing up. I ended up in Texas during my high school years and went in-state to the University of Texas at Dallas and earned my bachelor's in software engineering and master's in computer science. I applied to numerous Ph.D. programs and was fortunate enough to get accepted here to the UI in computer science. I earned my Ph.D. in computer science here at Illinois and enjoyed being here so much that I joined the faculty — and here we are today!
Were you once on Wall Street?
I was; great find! Almost a decade ago, just as the economy was coming out of the financial/housing bubble, I was not certain if finishing a Ph.D. was the direction I wanted to go with my life. I thought it would be fantastic to explore investment banking and spent almost a year in New York City on Wall Street. I learned a tremendous amount and enjoyed my time on Wall Street. However, I found myself missing the deep dives into research and being able to make an impact beyond the financial markets. I was lucky enough to be able to come back to Illinois and finish up my Ph.D.
Tell us about your belief that data science in particular should have a place alongside math, English and the fundamentals in primary education. Can you elaborate on that, and also about the tech necessary to do this?
When I look at jobs today, almost every single job relies on data to improve it. Athletes use complex analytics to improve their skills and understand their opponents, farmers use tractors with GPS to plant seeds in perfect rows and it is difficult to think of anyone who does not use data in some way.
Will this change the way we do business?
With all this data, I feel that the literacy of the 21st century will be the ability to analyze data. In a decade, I believe it will be difficult to find any job that does not expect you to know how to take a dataset and analyze it using data science tools, much like how it is difficult to find a job today if you do not know how to use Word or the Internet.
Here at the university, I am starting to teach a freshman-level gen-ed course called "Data Science Discovery" that gives students the tools to do perform meaningful analysis of data using the Python programming language as a tool. It is on track to be one of the larger courses at Illinois in just a couple of years!
I love the interactive Illini football graphs, and I bet your students had fun doing them!
It's fantastic, the work the students were able to do! It is a blast to work with datasets that are meaningful to students, as they will really dive into the data and discover amazing things!
By the way, are you a citizen of Illini Nation?
I am an Illini through and through.
What do you especially enjoy about visualization? By the way, do you have graphic-arts training?
That is a great question! There are two different things that really excite me about data visualization: First, I have always been a visual learner and I believe in the old saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words." More than that, I am always asking questions and thinking "What if?" When I hear about a phenomenon, I want to know details about "why," "how" and "what if?" When you have an interactive data visualization, I feel I can dig in and get those answers myself where you are rarely able to do that kind of exploration when you are just reading someone's written explanation.
You seem to concentrate on the students. That's refreshing. Why did you choose to go the route of mainly teacher rather than researcher?
It means a lot to you me that you noticed! Educating the next generation of experts, leaders, researchers and entrepreneurs is my primary goal here at Illinois.
How has that affected your role?
I am able to spend the majority of my time working with (primarily undergraduate) students as a result of joining a very new and non-traditional track of the faculty. My title is teaching assistant professor, which is a title that did not exist here at Illinois until 2014. In this specialized faculty, my primary responsibility is to focus on the educational mission of the university. This frees me up to work with students on large, impactful projects, focus on teaching new and innovative courses, and sharing the work we do at Illinois with the broader community.
Is your work available to everyone?
I have been fortunate enough that computer science has been supportive of my work and has given me the time and space to work with students and publish the work! You can find a lot of the work I have worked on with students on my faculty website, so anyone can check out all their amazing work at https://waf.cs.illinois.edu/!
You teach at least one online class through Coursera, correct? How is the experience of interacting with students online class different from the classroom, and do you need to make technology changes?
I just started dabbling in teaching online courses (Coursera) not even a year ago. There is a surprising amount of "production" that goes into a Coursera course: studio recordings, high-quality microphones in sound-dampened rooms, scripts and more! I believe it is fantastic that we can share our education with students who may not be able to be physically here at the campus. I am just starting to see my online courses scale up, so I will know a lot more about the different experience with students in a few months!
The new data-science class you're developing along with Karle Flanagan from statistics is being taught to 25 students, each from a different major. That sounds like a challenge itself.
In the fall, I began working with colleagues from four different colleges within the university to create an introductory-level data-science course called "CS/STAT/IS 107: Data Science Discovery" that can be taken by freshman students in their first or second semester. This semester, Karle and I are piloting this course with as diverse a group of students we could find to ensure that the course will be both accessible and exciting to Illini with any background! Given the popularity of data science, "Data Science Discovery" has been scheduled to be 600 students in fall 2019; there is a lot of excitement around data science!
You do some very serious work with your students, including topics such as gender diversity. Is it easy to misinterpret data presented in this fashion?
I feel that this work is some of my most important work. As a computer scientist, I feel the most important skill I can give students is the ability to present data in a meaningful way. As part of that, the presentation of the data needs to be honest, accessible and, most importantly, correct.
How so you ensure that?
When students work on visualizations that have a broader social impact, we are constantly evaluating that the data is presented in a straightforward way without bias. There are others on campus and in the community that are more informed about these issues to add context on top of them, and it has been rewarding to hear the conversations that have gotten started through presenting serious data in a clear, correct way. For some datasets, the work I did with students was the first time it was ever publicly done.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up in research?
Explore a lot of ideas and see them through to the end! For every project we talked about today, there are 100 projects that I worked on that did not have much success. You never know what will be impactful, but never give up!
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?
Yes, definitely — and I still make mistakes! One quote I live by is "if you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done." When you are doing new things, you are bound to make mistakes, and when I do, I get up and try it again.
Tell us about one.
One of my more memorable mistakes was when I was working on my thesis for my master's degree and needed to do some data scraping. I wrote a program that would go out to a website and retrieve that information. When I ran the program, it tried to retrieve the information nearly 1,000 times a second, which caused me to lose access to the website. This data was necessary for my thesis work, so I apologized, fixed my mistake and was able to get access back a week later. It certainly set back my work, but I learned the power of saying "sorry" in a professional setting and never wrote an aggressive "web scraper" again!
TECH TIDBITS ... from WADE FAGEN-ULMSCHNEIDER
What's your favorite app? One quirk I have is I find progress bars fascinating. There is an app called "Yearly" on Android that displays a progress bar for the year on my home screen and motivates me on my yearlong goals. Right now, looking at my phone, we are 4 percent of the way through 2019.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Kindle! I recently finished "Timebound" (by Rysa Walker), a thrilling time-traveling sci-fi novel that I found fascinating and thought-provoking.
Do you have a research hero? Edward Tufte, widely considered to be the "grandfather" of modern visualization.