2021 - Data Science Virtual Commencement

May 20, 2021

For the 668 UC Berkeley students who received their Data Science bachelor’s degrees on Saturday, May 15, it was a graduation day like no other, coming on the heels of an academic year like no other. Due to pandemic restrictions, students and their families celebrated their graduation via the program’s first-ever virtual commencement premiering on YouTube.

The ceremony featured commencement speakers, student and faculty awards, and a surprise appearance by Cal mascot Oski the Bear.

“Class of 2021, you have been on quite a ride,” said Jennifer Chayes, Associate Provost for the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS), in her remarks to the graduating class. “We’re now seeing daylight and it’s a testament to your and our collective ingenuity, resilience, grit, and heart as human beings.

“We need people like you with the heart and the skills to understand how to leverage data science for the good of humanity and the planet,” Chayes said.

The right choice

The next speaker was Giorgia Lupi, an information designer who created the Dear Data project with Stefanie Posavec. The two award-winning information designers living on different sides of the Atlantic collected and hand drew their personal data on post cards and mailed them to one another each week. The idea has been adopted by Deb Nolan, the outgoing Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in CDSS, in her freshman seminar.

After congratulating the class of 2021 on making it through the tough year, Lupi told them now is also the time to look ahead with confidence.

“There has never been a better or more fertile place in time to be at the intersection of data and society, so be confident you are on a good path,” she said. “In the past 13 months, we passed from a population where only a few of us cared about data to a population where every single person out there relied and still relies on data and charts every day to decide how to act during the pandemic and make important choices about their lives.”

Michael Jordan, the Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Department of Statistics, also reassured the parents of graduates, emphasizing the students’ “fantastic decision” to major in data science and how well positioned they are to be leaders in whatever career they pursue.

“It’s the emerging field of emerging fields,” Jordan said. “It’s going to make a real impact on real people. It has to do with services for people, with health care, with commerce, with transportation, with just about anything you can imagine.”

Oski Zoom-bombs commencement speaker

The final speaker was John DeNero, an Associate Teaching Professor in EECS who was recently announced as new Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies for CDSS. Looking a bit confused, DeNero wondered if he was on the right Zoom call as he was in his final office hours of the semester and no students were there. Suddenly, Berkeley mascot Oski the Bear logged in and DeNero realized that the bear was in his class and the one ungraded final exam -- unsigned but marked with a big blue paw print -- was Oski’s. 

On a question about pandemic haircuts and how to determine the smallest number of students in a class in which three students had very long hair and three had very short cuts, each at least r standard deviations from the mean, Oski’s answer of Grr baffled DeNero until he realized that the bear’s scrawl was actually correct: 6 r2. DeNero balked at giving Oski full credit for his answer until he scrolled down and saw that the bear had provided a proof using Chebyshev’s inequality.

“Nice job, Oski,” DeNero concedes. “I think that’s full credit for question number 1.”

After determining that the silent bear had indeed passed the exam and the class, DeNero decided it was time for a commencement speech. Donning his cap and gown, he told the students he was very proud of them and “All of that hard work you put in here -- it’s awesome.”

DeNero also said that they are well-positioned to help society do a better job of studying the implications of new technologies before they are widely deployed, citing privacy issues connected to the widespread use of social networks.

“As a society we’ve gotten used to making huge changes without understanding their effects,” DeNero said. “Now we see that that has consequences, and they’re not always good.”

DeNero also noted the importance of collaboration, telling graduates that although society tends to celebrate individuals, “the truth is most positive impacts are group efforts.” Berkeley grads can provide both the necessary leadership and the collaborative connections, DeNero said, encouraging students to maintain the ties they have built over their years at the university.

Data science moments

As part of the program, several graduating students shared their “data science moment,” that moment when they felt they had arrived as a data scientist.

Ashley Quiterio, a first-generation college student who grew up in Patterson in the San Joaquin Valley, said her moment came as she combined knowledge from Data 8: Foundations of Data Science, in which she learned to code and to analyze data, and Ethnic Studies, where she learned more about historical inequities across racial and ethnic groups.

“As a data scientist moving forward, I hope to be dedicated to ethics narrative story-telling and use the knowledge I’ve developed at Berkeley in my future work in developing curricula or other work,” Quiterio said.

Eva Sidlo said that when she came to Berkeley she was worried about failing; academically, financially, and socially. At the time, she thought failing was due to shortcomings one has no control over. But she now sees failure as meaning that one neglected to reach out for help when it is needed. Sidlo said she stopped comparing herself to measurements outlined on a syllabus and “transitioned to a spectrum that included a community that acknowledged who I was and my values.

“Once I let go of the indoctrinated notions of success, I found fulfillment in things that reinforced my authentic strengths. I found more ways to apply data science to help people,” she said. “Most importantly, I found a community. The most rewarding moment of my data science career was a series of moments.”

Students awarded for excellence

Faculty Director of Pedagogy Ani Adhikari presented awards recognizing student excellence.

Outstanding Teaching Awards for graduate student instructors were given to Kunal Agarwal, Mihaela Curmei, Samantha Hing, Anna Nguyen, Ryan Roggenkemper, and Ishaan Srivastava

Awards for Outstanding Data Science Undergraduates, recognizing performance in the major, research, and contributions to the data science community at Berkeley, were given to Emma Besier, Emily Hsiao, Adalie Palma, Ashley Quiterio, and Jack Stehn.

Four other graduate students were honored with an Extraordinary Teaching in Extraordinary Times Award for their innovative work to keep students engaged while learning remotely during the pandemic. Philippe Boileau, Anna Nguyen, Suraj Rampure and Allen Shen were recognized for their efforts to adapt the Data 8 and Data 100 courses they taught to a combined 800 students during the Summer 2020 semester.

The program concluded with the announcement of EECS Professor Emeritus David Culler receiving the 2021 Berkeley Citation Award, the highest honor the campus can bestow. 

Data Science graduates by the numbers

This year’s graduating class was the third DSUS cohort, but this is only the second graduation as the pandemic forced last year’s event to be canceled. The 2019 class comprised 82 graduates, while last year’s cohort included 438 majors and 89 minors. In addition to this year’s 668 majors, another 369 undergrads minored in Data Science.

“The trajectory of the number of students either majoring or minoring in Data Science reflects the growing awareness of the importance of understanding how data is used -- and sometimes misused in today’s world,” said Nolan, who helped create the Data Science undergraduate program. She is retiring at the end of the school year after 35 years at Berkeley.