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The Power of Hands-On Data Science

STEM Students Solve Real-World Problems in New Collaborative Grant Program
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Computer science major James Owens II wanted to learn more about data science and how to use machine learning and data visualization to solve real-world problems. 

Using data science tools, Owens studied the role of hippocampus, a complex brain structure embedded deep into the temporal lobe that plays a major role in learning and memory. This research is important so data scientists can intrinsically understand the brain, specifically how hippocampus aids in organizing memories. 

“With the information we obtained from our research, we seek to fully understand how the human brain can remember how, when and where events happened,” he said. “Once we fully understand how the parts of the brain organize memories, we can hopefully find a solution to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in the long-term.”

As a fellow in the SoCal Data Science Program, a collaboration between Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Cypress College launched earlier this year, Owens had the opportunity to learn all about this interdisciplinary, data-focused field through hands-on research. 

James Owen
James Owens II presented his data-focused project at the SoCal Data Science Program’s research symposium.

Owens worked on the project with CSUF research adviser Sam Behseta, professor of mathematics, and UC Irvine researchers to develop statistical models to understand underlying neural mechanisms of memory. 

Behseta, director of CSUF’s Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics and the university’s 2022 Outstanding Professor, and Jessica Jaynes, associate professor of mathematics, are leading the CSUF effort and mentoring students selected for the program.

Funded by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, the SoCal Data Science Program aims to recruit, train and dispatch a diverse workforce of STEM and data science majors. 

“Through this collaborative effort, we are providing opportunities for underrepresented students in data science early on in their academic career,” Behseta said. “We’re equipping undergraduate students with the required skills to solve real-life problems by creating hands-on research and practical projects.”

The program also is preparing students for a successful career path through mentoring and direct engagement with academic and non-academic institutions.

“It is our passion to provide opportunities for our students to learn the necessary skills for the workforce,” Jaynes said. “As the amount of data produced continues to increase exponentially, so does the demand for a skilled workforce trained with the necessary skills to understand scientific questions related to data, data management, data visualization and summarization, and the ability to communicate with data.” 

Creating Data Science Opportunities for Diverse Students

This first class of 31 fellows — from the three institutions, including 20 fellows from CSUF — is diverse, with the majority from underrepresented backgrounds, including Hispanic, Black, Filipino and Vietnamese ethnicities. 

Program fellows were selected from over 200 applicants, with half of the applicants from CSUF. The goal is to recruit a total of 120 students over the three-year program.

Owens noted that it’s important to train diverse data scientists who are from varied backgrounds and disciplines: “Diversity promotes new and better innovations and different perspectives from around the world.”

Group-CSUF team
CSUF mathematicians Sam Behseta and Jessica Jaynes are mentoring students in the SoCal Data Science Program.

The fellows participate in winter and spring coursework related to data science. The CSUF students, who are biological science, chemistry, computer science and mathematics majors, also enroll in the pilot course, “Foundations of Data Science,” taught by both Jaynes and Behseta. 

“In this course, students learn critical skills for data analysis and problem-solving,” noted Jaynes.

In the summer, students attended a one-week bootcamp and participated in a six-week data science research project, led by faculty from each of the institutions. 

Students worked alongside data science researchers and industry partners, such as Children’s Health of Orange County-CHOC, on six different research projects to address real  issues in daily life. 

In addition to Owens’ project, other research included the effects of COVID-19 in pediatric patients with cystic fibrosis, how diet affects cancer within the blood and bone marrow and the negative impact of smartphones on infant language development. 

The program culminated with a research symposium in August at UCI, where fellows presented their projects through short talks and poster presentations to more than 100 attendees.

“The ultimate highlight of the program was watching the students share all of their hard work with their families and friends at the research symposium,” Jaynes said.

Owens, who is considering a career as a data scientist, was introduced to statistical modeling techniques, brushed up on communication, analysis and research presentation skills, and found a like-minded community of peers.

“What fascinated me about data science is that I can use my computer science skills to solve real-world problems by using different algorithms and problem-solving techniques that I’ve learned,” he said.

Behseta and Jaynes plan to build on this year’s successes and continue developing and expanding the curriculum to create a community of data science learners.

For more information about the SoCal Data Science Program, visit the website. To apply for the 2022-23 program, visit here:; or contact Sam Behseta at; or Jessica Jaynes at

Debra Cano Ramos