Committed to Putting San Antonio on the National Map for Data Science.
By Antonio Gutierrez
Photography by David Teran
When David Mongeau was tapped to lead the UTSA School of Data Science in May 2021, the university could not have selected a better candidate for the job.
The new school is the first of its kind in Texas, according to UTSA’s website. It’s a key component in UTSA’s 10-year vision of establishing its Downtown Campus as a destination for producing highly skilled professionals in data science and analytics, promoting economic development, and creating prosperity for the Alamo City.
Mongeau, who hails from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, is poised to lead the way with a wealth of experience under his belt. He is known for successfully leading data science and analytics research institutes and training programs. He also has a knack for developing partnerships with government, industry, academia, and philanthropic communities to build collaboration in data science.
Incidentally, Mongeau credits his wife for his foray into data science, which you’ll read about shortly. He has also adapted quite nicely to his new home here and has a list of favorite haunts to relax and enjoy a good cup of coffee.
What are your role and goals as founding director of the School of Data Science?
My role is to lead the UTSA School of Data Science to the forefront of the next generation of data science as the school expands into new areas of inquiry and teaching. To fulfill this leadership role requires a lot of building. It literally involves occupying and opening a new building for the school, as well as the National Security Collaboration Center, in downtown San Antonio on Dolorosa Street next to City Hall. It involves building the academic, professional, and research teams that we need to create an impact in the building. It involves building relationships and trust in the community so UTSA can bring its data and data scientists to bear on the challenges and opportunities that San Antonio faces. Overall, my role involves both imagining and implementing, and I enjoy both.
Goals? There are many underlying visions that I set for the school: to inspire and prepare a generation of data scientists who can make the world more equitable, informed, and secure. Notice that the vision is focused on people. With that focus, we’ll create opportunity locally so we can have impact nationally. My goals are to serve San Antonio and to put us on the national map as a data science go-to city.
What exactly is data science?
Data science is a field dedicated to extracting insights from data in all its forms, such as images, sound, and text. Data scientists are people with the knowledge – the facts, information, and skills – needed to work with the data. That work includes generating, collecting, processing, analyzing, and interpreting the data. Data science is not new. In 1962, John Tukey, a mathematician at Bell Labs, coined “data analysis” as an unrecognized science. Later, in 2001, William Cleveland, a statistician at Bell Labs, where I worked for over 25 years, coined “data science.” What’s new is the amount of data that we have in 2022 because of our highly connected, networked world. Now, you can think of data science as the triumvirate of math + statistics + computing, and unmeasurable amounts of digitized data combined with specific knowledge of climate, education, poverty, and so on. The combination makes it possible to address economic and social problems, reach business goals, and even explore new performing and visual arts in ways we could not do in 1962.
What drew you to data science?
My wife, Jewell. I was studying poetry as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University. This transfer student showed up in my statistics and my programming class, who attracted me and seemed to understand what was going on in class way better than me. I used to offer to buy Jewell bagels before class so I could learn from her or sometimes copy her homework. We also spent many a late night together in computer labs learning C and other programming languages. She was so comfortable with empirical methods and logic. I ended up minoring in data analysis at CMU and marrying Jewell. I came to see the power of both lyrical and logical thinking.
How does data science contribute to the workforce or economic development of a city?
Data science contributes growth. It can be a growth engine for the economy and for the workforce that builds and benefits from the economy. Since arriving in San Antonio 10 months ago, I have met with many civic, corporate, and government leaders and workers. All of them have or know how to get data that they are counting on to grow their endeavors and to solve problems standing in the way of growth and social mobility in San Antonio. If we inspire and prepare our students at UTSA to stand on the foundations of math + statistics + computing, and lots of data combined with topics that they care about, we can contribute to the future wellbeing of the city.
What are some of the things you enjoy about the Alamo City?
The history and gardens and museums along the Broadway corridor and Mission Trails. The people in the community and at the university who have gone out of their way to help me plug in and learn what it’s going to take to achieve the vision for the school. Coffee and caloric pastries at Commonwealth Coffee, Olmos Perk, and La Panaderia, and my first Fiesta.