Data is Booming

Professor of the Practice of Data Analytics Shuo Zhang is giving students practical, hands-on instruction in the emerging field of data analytics
Shuo Zhang


Shuo Zhang sees data everywhere. In the number of travelers to a particular destination and the downloads of a popular song. In the ratings for a restaurant and the strokes on a keyboard. In the results of a survey and the frequency of sound.

A professor in the Data Analytics Graduate Program and a principal machine learning engineer at the audio equipment corporation Bose, Zhang is sharing his passion for data with a new generation of learners.

“Data analytics is very trendy right now because there’s a tremendous amount of data being generated in every sector of the economy,” Zhang says. “Whether you’re working in retail or entertainment or combating things like poverty and climate change, you’re going to need to analyze data and make decisions based on that information.”

He teaches two popular master’s courses at Tufts: introduction to natural language processing, which explores how computers can capture, process, understand, and generate human language; and applied machine learning with multimodal data, which explores how artificial intelligence interacts with the world by employing a variety of modalities, including image, audio, and text data.

Traditional data collection tools from ten or twenty years ago are insufficient to process the amount of data being generated worldwide, Zhang says. New tools and expertise are required, along with an understanding of data privacy, ethics, and laws  – topics which are woven into his courses and the Tufts Data Analytics curriculum.

“Data science is an exciting, fast moving field” Zhang says. “If you want to work in this industry, you have to keep learning. You have to read papers and refine your skills because it's always changing. In the Tufts graduate program, and in the field generally, there is so much overlap between academia and industry, between research and practice.”

Zhang’s teaching philosophy is informed by his own industry experience. At Bose, he leads projects conducting applied research using state-of-the-art machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to deliver research into products. “Data analytics is a very practical discipline and most students' goal is to enter industry after graduation, so my courses are structured around common engineering principles you’d encounter on the job,” he says.

In his courses, master’s students learn advanced computer programming tools, work in collaborative teams based on their professional backgrounds, conduct code reviews, complete a final project based on their unique interests, and present their findings. “It’s important that we’re training students who can write code and analyze data, but also communicate their findings to engineers and CEOs,” Zhang says. “It’s important to have both technical and storytelling skills.”

Zhang’s own career has married the art and science of engineering and communication. He grew up in a creative family of musicians and learned to play a variety of instruments as a child, with his primary instruments being the piano and erhu or Chinese violin. He studied environmental science and engineering at Peking University in China, then went on to earn an MA in music from the University of Pittsburgh and a PhD in computational linguistics from Georgetown University.

“I’m someone who is very curious about everything,” Zhang reflects. “Analyzing data is one way I’ve found to channel my curiosity about the world. Understanding language is another passion. It’s such a defining characteristic of what makes us human, and even though we’re all proficient language-users, we’re still trying to figure out the mechanisms of how it works .”  

Zhang has found teaching to be another fulfilling endeavor. “When I started teaching I realized it’s all about people,” he reflects. “You have to communicate well and receive feedback. It’s a positive reinforcement loop and such a rewarding experience. The Tufts Data Analytics program is comprehensive and challenging, and I’m very appreciative of my students. They really want to learn, and I’m always happy to see them succeed in this new and exciting field.”

When Zhang isn’t working, conducting research, or teaching, he is often listening to or playing music. A regular performer at Bose-sponsored concerts, he loves a good jam session.