Salvador Balkus was recently awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, becoming the third recipient in UMass Dartmouth's history of awardees. The fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions.
Prior to graduating from the university earlier this month, we had the opportunity to connect with Salvador for a conversation about his experiences as a data science student at the College of Engineering as well as his multitude of achievements.
Salvador, tell us why you chose UMassD.
“The data science program here offered a program of study providing useful technical skills needed in today’s workforce. Because of this, I knew that I would easily be able to start a career after graduating. However, the program was also affordable enough for me to obtain a degree without needing to worry about being swamped with student loans.
Finally, I found the university to be a perfect size – large enough to fund a variety of cutting-edge research, but also small enough for professors to provide lots of personal attention to students in their classes. Altogether, I thought the community at UMass Dartmouth was a perfect fit for my needs.”
What drew you to study data science?
“In high school, computer science and mathematics were my main academic strengths – the data science major allowed me to combine these interests. I also knew that since data science is a fast-growing field and every organization uses data, the skills I learned would enable me to obtain a job very easily after graduation. Data science was the most practical choice of major.
Taking classes in data science at UMass Dartmouth only reinforced my love for the field. Studying statistical methods and machine learning helped me discover how integral data science will be in the future – both for discovering new insights and creating novel automation tools. And, as a naturally curious person, being in data science allowed me to dabble in different areas, examining intellectually stimulating research questions across many different fields. With new statistical and computational methodologies being published every day, to be a data science major is to be at the forefront of science – which is, to me, an experience like no other.”
Briefly tell us about your research experience.
“I entered my first role as a research assistant in my first year when I was hired at the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center after being recommended by Professor Davis and Professor Kim. Here, I saw firsthand how research could benefit my own community. One particularly memorable project was our report, “Charting the Course: A Regional Assessment of the Marine Science and Technology Sector in Southeastern New England,” which helped UMass Dartmouth advance development in the Southcoast marine economy.
Other projects, such as our research on frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and our analysis of socioeconomic determinants of healthcare disparities for Southcoast Health, sparked my interest in health research. Working under the guidance of Professor Fang, I developed software for COVID-19 forecasting on university campuses based on data from UMass Dartmouth. In addition, I wrote research papers on federated clustering for health studies, dietary data harmonization, and wireless communications in self-driving cars.”
What courses or experiences have had the greatest impact?
“In my first semester, I took a class with Professor Gary Davis called “Exploratory Data Analysis” that I would honestly consider life-changing. Professor Davis gave us the latitude to figure out which methods we ought to use on our own. The class unleashed my curiosity and reshaped my pre-conceived notions about what it means to learn. This experience eventually led me to apply to top PhD programs in statistics, and ultimately brought me to where I am today.
My academic advisor, Julia Fang has been my main research mentor. Without her guidance, I would not have been able to successfully publish papers in top computer science journals.”
And your biggest takeaway?
“Gaining extensive research experience through UMass Dartmouth has provided the necessary computational skills and independent scholarly thinking that I need to become an expert in my field as a Harvard Biostatistics PhD candidate.”
What are your plans after graduation?
“UMass Dartmouth provided many opportunities for me to work with faculty and research centers on campus and publish original papers in my field. I know that the undergraduate research background that I developed at UMass Dartmouth has prepared me well to pursue graduate study at Harvard, as well as a career as a professional researcher in biostatistics.”