Murty Sunak Quantitative and Computing Lab expands data science integration on campus

Trustee Akshata Murty ’02 chuckles when she thinks about a quote from her father.

When he was building Infosys Limited, a global software consulting company headquartered in Bangalore, India, N.R. Narayana Murthy P’02 would often use a favorite phrase with his employees.

“In God we trust. And everyone else must bring data to the table.”

The importance of data in today’s world, and the growing need for its integration across the broader liberal arts curriculum at CMC, is the reason she and her husband, Rishi Sunak, committed $3 million to the newly opened Murty Sunak Quantitative and Computing Lab (QCL).

“It’s so important that the QCL help students gain knowledge about data and technology in, certainly scientific areas, but also in the social sciences, politics, government, history, and psychology,” said Murty, a CMC Economics and French double major. “That application piece has evolved in a more robust form in the last decade, and it wasn’t as prevalent when I was at CMC. It’s exciting that there’s a center dedicated to allowing students to use data in whatever field they pursue.”

Akshata Murty and family
Akshata Murty ’02 (right) and family
Jeho Park
QCL Director Jeho Park

Located in Kravis Center Lower Court, the Murty Sunak QCL serves as CMC’s centralized hub for integrating data and computer science into all fields of study and research. The desire to learn more about data and technology is evident in CMC computer science enrollments, which have seen 82 percent growth in the past five years. Students are increasingly using sophisticated data tools for research in multiple fields of study.

“We are not educating computer scientists who then look for applications of their tools. We are educating emerging liberal arts scholars who grow to understand the power and limits of these tools at the intersection of different disciplines and domain expertise,” President Hiram E. Chodosh said.

Thinking bigger

With a goal of implementing the larger vision for the integration of computer and data science in the liberal arts, strategic planning for the QCL began a year ago. Peter Uvin, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, tasked a five-person faculty committee with researching similar quantitative-based centers at liberal arts colleges. The pool of comparable models was not particularly deep, he said, and such centers have often been viewed as a secondary resource for the campuses.

The QCL is modeled after CMC’s Center for Writing and Public Discourse, which views written and oral communication competency as a basic life-and-work skill—not a narrowly defined set of strengths for novelists or literary experts. Likewise, the QCL aims to empower students who may not have a natural comfort level with mathematical or computational concepts, but seek to improve their fluencies in applications of data and statistics.

“Just as we believe in good writing and clear speaking as hallmarks of a liberal arts education, we also believe in a fundamental understanding of statistics, mathematics, and computing,” Uvin said. “And if that is what we profess to value at CMC, we ought to support our students in acquiring and honing this wide range of skills.”

The QCL also opened for the academic year as CMC introduced its new data science sequence—three mandatory courses in programming, statistics, and data science, and three additional courses that link with a major. It provides another entry point for students to incorporate data analysis and data mining—or “analyzing and processing large quantities of data”—into their liberal arts learning, said Lenny Fukshansky, Professor of Mathematics and head of the faculty advisory committee for the QCL.

“Knowing these two initiatives were happening simultaneously, the big question we had to ask ourselves was: ‘What support networks exist for the campus?’ We’ve always had our own tutoring operation for math and CS students in Adams Hall, but that had its limitations. We had to think bigger. What we were doing wasn’t going to be vigorous enough for what we were seeing trend campuswide,” he said.

Getting off the ground

After the faculty committee made its recommendations for the QCL, support operations were finalized thanks to Murty and Sunak’s gift. Murty is director of Catamaran Ventures UK Ltd, a firm that invests in venture capital and private equity opportunities in the U.K. and U.S. Another $1 million was added by George Roberts ’66 P’93 as part of his Roberts Foundation-Computer Science Endowment Matching Initiative, which meets commitments by other donors on a one-to-three basis as part of a $25 million fund he established for computer science and technology-related initiatives at CMC.

Murty and Sunak said they were drawn to the mission of the QCL because it combines “left brain and right brain thinking” to create an important, unified pillar of the liberal arts. Too often as undergrads, both saw math and computer science students take one prescribed path, and others who were less confident with numbers and data flee in a different direction. They believe the QCL can be used at CMC as a catalyst for incorporating “data as one of the foundations of liberal arts life rather than students operating in silos.”  

As data volumes continue to explode, it will also be important for CMC graduates to keep pace with technology and innovation. The world’s ability to generate more data, which will then be used for practical purposes that influence non-STEM career fields, “forces everyone to adapt,” Sunak said. He cited his growing need for data in public policy decision-making as a member of parliament in the United Kingdom.

“The QCL is a spectrum. On one end, it’s available as a resource to both faculty and students for whom data is second nature so they can further manipulate, study, and research cutting edge methodologies in that space. On the other end of that spectrum, there are students who need further support,” Murty said.

“The QCL can help allay the fears of those who may be intimidated by numbers, or simply don’t feel comfortable handling data, to begin to explore, build their knowledge, and perhaps discover something unexpected and even exciting in the process.”

A community of learning

At the helm of the QCL is Jeho Park, who was hired as its director in July. Park, who previously served as Associate Director of Academic and Research Computing Services at Harvey Mudd College, will oversee 14 student mentors who provide tutorial support and a range of quantitative consulting services for student and faculty research projects. Like the writing center, the QCL is designed to serve as an open space support center that CMCers can access on a drop-in basis or by online appointment.

Park also teaches workshops about quantitative and computational tools, perhaps some previously out of reach at CMC. Even before the QCL opened, he received faculty queries about his role as a “campus champion” through XSEDE, a National Science Foundation funded group that assists with research services like the use of national supercomputers.

“President Chodosh has talked often about the power and danger of data. As a liberal arts college, we want our students to have the ability to see that power and danger, to know how these tools can work in the best possible way,” said Park, who has a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from Claremont Graduate University. “It’s not just a computer science and mathematics thing. It’s our job as educators to teach everybody.”

As data and computer science continues to ripple through the curriculum, Uvin is confident that the QCL will allow CMC to “see where the greatest campus needs are” and react accordingly. Trust between the QCL, faculty, and students will take time to develop, he stressed. But now CMC has the tools and momentum to stay ahead of an evolving dialogue about how data and technology are changing expectations for a fully integrated, immersive liberal arts education.

“The QCL requires experimentation on our part. We get to carve our own individual path now,” Uvin said. “But for us to do this well, we have to build a community of learning and commitment. Students cannot be afraid to go down the path of data and numbers, but they have to know that they will be supported once they do.”

—Thomas Rozwadowski