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SLU's Computer Science Department Expands Offerings to Prepare Tomorrow's Tech Workers

As St. Louis and the Midwest continue to draw tech companies and budding start-ups, Saint Louis University's Computer Science department is looking to the future and adding graduate options that will train the workforce needed in today's high-tech economy.

New degree programs will also create opportunities for interdisciplinary exploration aimed at making SLU alumni more adept at applying their classroom knowledge to projects in their professional lives.

Computer Science students working on a research project

Senior Samiksha Mailarpwar (right) and visiting graduate student Alessio Sacco, work on a project that will link SLU's Research Microscopy and Histology Core with computer software in hopes of improving the state of  telepathology, which will let doctors in rural settings access SLU's state-of-the-art tools and services. Photo by Amelia Flood

“Nationwide, there is enormous demand for computer scientists and software developers, not just because tech companies need them, but because all companies’ operations are being revolutionized by computing technologies and big data,” said Michael Goldwasser, Ph.D., professor and chair of computer science.

“What a lot of people may not recognize is that tech demand is remarkably high in the greater St. Louis area because many Fortune 500 companies have located their technology headquarters here,” Goldwasser continued. “These are not just tech companies, but also companies that build airplanes, process financial transactions, analyze genomes, design new pharmaceuticals, improve health and insurance markets, deliver prescriptions or serve as consultants to other organizations.”

St. Louis and the Midwest’s needs for skilled tech workers have been in the news, from articles in the St. Louis Business Journal to the New York Times.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified computer science, software engineering and other STEM jobs as significant growth areas for the U.S. economy, according to the bureau’s projections. As a sign of Midtown’s allure to tech companies, Microsoft recently announced its regional headquarters would move to the Cortex Innovation District, steps away from SLU’s campus.

SLU's computer science faculty members routinely meet with representatives of local organizations eager to find potential employees with the skills and educational backgrounds to meet their technology needs, Goldwasser said.

In the fall of 2017, SLU’s Board of Trustees approved the creation of two new graduate degrees: a Master of Science in Computer Science and a Master of Science in Software Engineering.

Recruitment is now underway for the department’s first graduate cohort, who will begin their studies in fall 2018.

Nationwide, there is enormous demand for computer scientists and software developers, not just because tech companies need them, but because all companies’ operations are being revolutionized by computing technologies and big data."

Michael Goldwasser, Ph.D., professor and chair of computer science

The degrees are built around a common set of courses, but with a different balance of requirements and electives, Goldwasser explained.

“The computer science degree has more breadth of field, bringing all the pieces together to advance research and development,” he said. Students pursuing that degree will examine software, networks and the algorithms that advance knowledge.

“The software engineering degree has a more tailored focus, enabling students to work effectively as part of teams that develop complex and, hopefully, high-quality software systems,” Goldwasser continued. Students in the software engineering program must complete a team-based capstone project that will pair their classroom skills with real-world challenges they may face on the job.

“While students with a bachelors in computer science already have outstanding job prospects, these masters degrees will help students position themselves for more cutting-edge positions, and can help strengthen the knowledge and skill for a student with a different undergraduate field whose interest in CS developed at a later time,” said Goldwasser.

Students entering both graduate programs will also be able to apply their skills on research projects led by department faculty and supported by premier funders including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and companies such as Amazon.

Grant Kolar, M.D., Ph.D., with visiting graduate student Alessio Sacco
The Department of Computer Science and its students have partnered interdisciplinarily to work with faculty like Grant Kolar, M.D., Ph.D. (right) on research projects. Photo by Amelia Flood

Recent grants to the department include two National Science Foundation grants won by Erin Chambers, Ph.D., one to support a conference for women mathematicians in Turkey and a $297,021 grant to support Chambers’ research on algorithms and notions of similarity; a $5,000 Amazon grant to Tae-Hyuk “Ted” Ahn, Ph.D., for work using Apache Spark and Amazon Cloud for large metagenomics sequence analysis; and a $203,815 National Science foundation grant to Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., for collaborative work with the University of Missouri-Columbia on path management for scalable data and intensive computing at network edges.

Both Chambers and Esposito’s NSF grants have received Research for Undergraduate Experience (REU) supplements to support undergraduate students for additional work related to the original grant.

The department’s current students are already taking advantage of their faculty mentors’ research projects as they look to gain real-world skills to build their resumes. Four undergraduate students presented their research collaborations at professional meetings last Fall in Boston, Toronto, Las Vegas and Snowbird, Utah.

Senior Samiksha Mailarpwar and Alessio Sacco, a visiting graduate student from Italy, have also been working with Esposito and Grant Kolar, M.D., Ph.D., assistant research professor of pathology and director of the University’s Research Microscopy and Histology Core, to collaborate on ways to use the core’s microscopes and other tools to network with computer software to eventually allow for a kind of telepathology, allowing doctors in rural settings to speed up pathology consultations with immediate access to state-of-the-art pathological analysis available at SLU.

This year’s graduating seniors are working with faculty on capstone projects that range from developing a tablet app that can help doctors and nurses in a NICU setting; with SLU’s Walter J. Ong, S.J., Center for Digital Humanities to improve image analysis for paleographic studies; with the SLU Ride program to harness technology to modernize operations; with Department of Biology faculty to create online tools for biology students to model concept maps; with Department of Languages, Literature and Culture to provide a mobile app that gives students immediate feedback on their pronunciation of a language; and with faculty from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at SLU’s Parks College of Engineering Aviation and Technology to use virtual reality systems to control unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“Our department's mission is to enhance our students' technical skills while enabling them to perform analyses and to build tools that positively impact the lives of people,” Goldwasser said.

Applications for both graduate degree programs that are received by Feb. 1 will be reviewed by a department committee and admissions decisions will be available in March. All prospective students who send in their applications by Feb. 1 will be considered for financial support.

Those applying after Feb. 1 but before July 1 will be considered for admission on a rolling basis and will be considered for financial support subject to availability and at the department’s discretion.

More information about both the new Computer Science and Software Engineering M.S. programs is available.

Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., with senior Samiksha Mailarpwar

Due to the department's robust research program, undergraduate students like Samiksha Mailarpwar (right) work with faculty mentors like Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., on projects that dovetail with their coursework and future career ambitions. Photo by Amelia Flood

Saint Louis University is a world-class Catholic, Jesuit institution educating nearly 13,000 students on two dynamic, urban campuses - in St. Louis, Missouri, and Madrid, Spain. Founded in 1818, the University is now celebrating its bicentennial.

With a legacy of innovative academics and research, compassionate health care and faithful service, Saint Louis University attracts a diverse community of scholars who push intellectual boundaries in pursuit of creative, meaningful ways to impact the world, striving to serve a higher purpose and seek a greater good.

Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications