MLDS Program Celebrates its 10-Year Anniversary

Leaders of the program shared how it's evolved in the past decade and why it will continue to drive innovation for the foreseeable future.

More than 200 people packed the Hilton Orrington Evanston Grand Ballroom recently to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Machine Learning and Data Science (MLDS) program (formerly the MSiA program). 

The event was designed to bring the MLDS community together, associate director Stephen Dowling said. 

"It was truly gratifying to see current students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends from industry simply enjoying each other’s company," he said. "Current students benefited from hearing the perspective and wisdom of alumni who have been in the field, and those alumni similarly got caught up on changes in the program – while also catching up with their favorite professors." 

One of the most recent changes to the program was to its name itself. This past summer, the program shifted from being called the Master of Science in Analytics program to better reflect its content and overall mission 

Program director Diego Klabjan said the MLDS name would not be the only unfamiliar aspect of the program to alumni who were among its earliest graduates.  

"The curriculum must always evolve, and so there is only a limited overlap between the material of the first cohort and the current curriculum," Klabjan said. "We are educating students at a deeper and broader level than at inception and have incorporated far more advanced techniques into the curriculum. If you think about MS as being a bridge between BS and PhD, we started as a program in between; we are much closer to the PhD side of things now."  

As program director — and a self-proclaimed tech enthusiast — Klabjan said he's fascinated by emerging technologies that have brought machine learning and data science into mainstream conversation and made it possible to do things he never could have imagined a decade ago.  

The trick, he said, is trying to understand what technology is here to stay and what MLDS students need to know about it.  

"Leading the program often feels like being a venture capitalist — placing bets on what technology will 'stick,' where one out of ten might succeed," he said. "We don't want to introduce emerging approaches that might, in a few years, no longer be relevant. Identifying those that will stick is a big challenge, but an exciting one. Excitement must be part of any decision-making associated with learning." 

Dowling agreed that the evolution in content emphasized throughout the history of MLDS has evolved with technology change. For a program that prides itself on embracing new technology as close to real-time as possible, Dowling said what excites him about MLDS is perhaps counterintuitive. 

"I’m excited by an element of consistency across the decade," Dowling said. "The program has retained some core faculty from around Northwestern whose tireless efforts to keep the curriculum current from year one to now have made all the difference in the MLDS student experience." 

One of those faculty members is professor emeritus Ajit Tamhane, who spoke at the anniversary event.  

"I am excited by how rapidly the program has evolved over the last 10 years since its inception and expect the same pace will continue in the future, Tamhane said, "producing first rate graduates who will become industry leaders." 

That, Dowling said, is the lasting legacy of MLDS. And it's a trend he sees continuing for the foreseeable future.  

"Machine learning and data science are very clearly here to stay, and are going to play critical roles in traditionally STEM fields to the humanities and beyond," Dowling said. "There are opportunities for collaboration and discovery on the horizon that I find very exciting, and MLDS is in a strong position to leverage its network, alumni, and the resources of Northwestern to play a key role in that work." 

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