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Statistics scholar fills ‘big data’ faculty posts at COE, new UF institute



GAINESVILLE, Fla.—A  Harvard-trained statistical researcher and expert in online network modeling has filled one of the College of Education’s four faculty positions created in support of the University of Florida’s preeminence initiative to become one of the nation’s top 10 public research universities.

THOMAS, AndrewAndrew C. Thomas, a research scientist in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), will become an associate professor in the Research and Evaluation Methodology program at UF’s College of Education. His appointment takes effect in January.

Thomas, who received his doctorate in statistics from Harvard in 2009, also will join a campuswide consortium of faculty scientists in landmark “big data” studies at the new UF Informatics Institute, one of UF’s major preeminence initiatives. The institute’s big-data science initiative is one of 28 high-potential areas of science and scholarship targeted by UF for investment of state preeminence funds. 

The Informatics Institute unites a team of educators, engineers, scientists, artists, natural scientists and other UF faculty researchers in an ambitious push to harness the vast amounts of data now generating in the world and apply them to advancing a wide range of vital areas in education and the social sciences.

“Ninety percent of data that exists today was created in the last two years. Collecting and analyzing immense amounts of data has been a challenge up to now,” said UF education dean Glenn Good. “Dr. Thomas’s expertise in online networks and large data management align well with our efforts to harness informatic analysis and apply it to resolve societal issues. At the College of Education, his contributions will help us better understand national education trends and conduct large-scale effectiveness studies of best  teaching practices.”

Thomas, currently an affiliate faculty member of CMU’s Living Analytics Research Center in Pittsburgh, has focused his investigations on the formation and workings of complex online networks and measuring peer influence between members on a social network. At CMU, he worked on collaborative university-industry studies designed to improve the handling and examination of large data sources, including new sources such as education.

“Much of my recent work focuses on network models that give us information about the individuals themselves who belong to the network,” said Thomas, who has worked at CMU since completing his Harvard Ph.D. studies. “The richness of multiple networks in education, through students in classrooms and teachers in schools, makes this an exciting area of development that I will continue to pursue at the University of Florida.”

Thomas said he looks forward to being part of the collaborative effort at the UF Information Institute where “the trick will be developing computational systems that can cope with large volumes of data.”

Thomas has made numerous presentations and published several research reports, including an encyclopedia article on network modeling. He has applied his statistics know-how to a wide range of fields including political science, public policy, demography, environmental engineering and sports. The Canadian native, a huge ice hockey fan, last year co-authored an article in the Annals of Applied Statistics on statistical approaches for measuring individual player contributions in hockey games. 

Thomas brings two large research grants on network modeling with him to UF worth more than $640,000 combined—one from the National Science Foundation and another from the federal Institute of Educational Sciences.

He said he’s also excited about continuing his teaching and mentoring in the evolving field of data science education at UF.

The big data informatics project is one of three College of Education initiatives that UF administrators targeted for investment of preeminence funds, to the tune of $3.8 million. The other two involve optimizing early childhood development and advancing personalized online learning.

The Florida Legislature in 2013 identified UF as the state’s preeminent university and is giving the university $15 million a year for five years to spend on improving areas that would help it become one of the nation’s top 10 public research universities. The Legislature gave UF another $5 million this spring for the push.

UF President Bernie Machen has pledged to match the state money with $75 million in private donations and spend $150 million on recruiting 120 world-class and up-and-coming faculty to strengthen UF’s research and academic missions.


CONTACTS
    SOURCE: Andrew Thomas, PhD, acthomas@stat.cmu.edu, 412-268-3556
    WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education; llansford@coe.ufl.edu; 352-273-4137