Professor Diane Strong on How She Became a Pioneer in Data Science

24 September, 2021

Out of all computer and information science doctorate holders employed in academia, only 2% are women. Diane Strong is one of these few women and is, by all standards, a pioneer in the industry.

“When I began studying computer science, it was a new and emerging field,” reflects Strong.

Now, Strong is a professor of information and technology and data science and the department head of online business degree programs at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Business School.

We sat down with Strong to learn how her experience seeing the evolution of computers from the start informs her teaching and research. She also shares with us how they’ve come to shape the educational framework of blending theory and practice at WPI.

A Leap of Faith Into Computer Science

Diane Strong hadn’t even considered the possibility of studying computers until her university’s math department launched a brand-new computer science program. At the time, Strong was making progress on her undergraduate degree in mathematics. Math had always been Strong’s favorite subject, and she was captivated by the potential to apply theory in a completely different way. Now, there was an option besides becoming a high school math teacher after graduating.

“I signed up to be a computer science major without knowing what it would be, but I was ready to do something new,” reflects Strong.

Strong took the leap of faith into the unknown and began her career in computer science.

Becoming an Expert in Business and Technology

With its synthesis of theoretical studies of algorithms based in math, computer science was a natural fit for Strong. She was eager to learn more about the field and dove straight into a master’s in computer and information science after completing her undergraduate degree. When Strong first entered the field, nobody knew how to apply theoretical concepts in computer science, but as she continued her education, more and more practical functions for computers were being discovered. Strong was learning about revolutionary technology trends like data science and machine learning as they were first being introduced.

Strong worked in the industry as a management science analyst for the next few years, building knowledge on how businesses use and get value out of new technologies. Her new insights inspired her to return to school for a PhD in information systems with a focus on business.

“Being in industry, I’ve learned there’s a struggle with trying to figure out how to use all of these new technologies. What do you do with them? How can you get value out of them? So when I went back to get my PhD, I went to a business school, not to a computer science school, because I wanted to learn how to apply these things.”

Near the end of her PhD program, Strong began teaching as an assistant professor of management information systems at a premier New England business school. In addition to teaching, Strong was researching how early artificial intelligence systems could be used in businesses. Her research led to a key discovery that the value of an artificial intelligence system depends on the quality of data and information that it could produce. For the next few years, Strong followed up her discovery with research to answer the question: what is it that makes data of good quality? Her paper on data quality has garnered nearly 5,000 citations since its publication, and is now considered a classic in data science.

Embracing Theory and Practice at WPI

Strong joined the faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1995 and has been teaching here since. When asked about what initially drew her to WPI and what has made her want to keep teaching at WPI, Strong answered, “then and now, it’s theory and practice.”

“When we teach students theory, we are teaching them concepts that will last them decades. When we teach them practice, we make sure that they’re up to date,” Strong elaborated. In one of the courses she teaches, for example, students have the opportunity to learn the technical aspects of database systems and practice this knowledge by exploring databases on Android phones.

From Data to Healthcare

While conducting research on technology in manufacturing companies, Strong and her colleagues at WPI made the prediction that computerization in healthcare would be the next big trend. Their prediction was confirmed soon after when President Obama announced the push to adopt electronic health records for all Americans. Since then, Strong has shifted her research focus to the applications of technology in healthcare.

One of her most recent projects is the Sugar smartphone application, which allows people with Type II diabetes to track and assess chronic wounds and overall health. Strong and her team built machine learning algorithms into the app to analyze photos of wounds and calculate what care advice to give. The app empowers patients and caregivers to become more involved in their own care while also lowering costs associated with frequent doctor visits and emergency services.

Looking to the Future

Despite her extensive career studying and working with data, Strong is more excited than ever about the future of data science. She said, “We are at a new revolution in terms of being data-driven, understanding the insights, and predicting what we need to do in the future.”

When asked about advice for future leaders in business and technology, Strong asserted that there isn’t a perfect formula for success. “If you enjoy playing with data and using technology and want to do something practical and valuable with it, that’s the combination that will make you successful,” she said.

For women in STEM, Strong advises “Don’t worry about the naysayers, and don’t worry about the people that say you don’t belong here.” Strong became aware that she and the few other women in her class were in the minority as soon as she began taking advanced math in high school. As her career advanced, the number of women only dwindled. She reminds other women in science that regardless of the number of people that look like you in your field, there are always people that are willing to help you.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Online Business Degrees

The WPI Business School is committed to helping professionals build a strategic business mindset empowered by technology. WPI’s online Master of Business Administration program equips students with the business and technological acumen required to lead today’s most innovative and successful organizations.

Our fully online, asynchronous program uses a project-based approach to provide students with practical experience tackling the challenges they’ll face as influential leaders in tech-driven environments. Students learn through real-world examples, case studies, and simulations, studying alongside like-minded STEM professionals in a virtual environment directed by expert faculty. With 20 specialization options, tech and analysis principles infused into every course, and a collaborative capstone project, the WPI online MBA program was built with modern career and business needs in mind.