MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Mars colonization? Self-driving cars in the Midstate? Integrated health care databases? All are big topics that require “big data” to address.

And they will be among research areas explored initially by Middle Tennessee State University’s new Data Science Institute, officially launched in mid-May with a mission to promote funded interdisciplinary research and develop public and private collaborations around the emerging field of “big data.”

“The trend to gather more data has become more prevalent over the last 10 years, whether it be your Twitter feed, Facebook feed or just data that companies are able to collect,” said Charlie Apigian, interim director of the institute and a professor of information systems and analytics in MTSU’s Jones College of Business.

“The problem is many companies don't know how to analyze and bring that together to make good business decisions. So in the last few years, data science has become more at the forefront to be able to add more business value and to be able to make better decisions using data.”

The Data Science Institute seeks to create opportunities for faculty and students to collaborate on interdisciplinary research; bring in substantial grants and funding for interdisciplinary data projects; and establish big data partnerships and projects with companies and other external entities.

While recent high profile examples such as Facebook and Twitter have attracted a lot of attention regarding data collection and use, companies across numerous industries and sectors, including those within Nashville and the Midstate, are harnessing lots of data, Apigian noted.

“Health care is really big. Finance is becoming bigger. And of course you have music. All three areas have a lot of data and struggle with what to do,” he said. “Health care is getting better at using data, but through partnerships with universities where the expertise does exist, we can move these industries into better uses of data through machine learning, AI, and other big data initiatives.”

Apigian’s most urgent task is identifying key MTSU faculty interested in big data initiatives and forming an advisory board. The interdisciplinary nature of the institute is critical because a given big data project could require the expertise of faculty from disciplines ranging from agribusiness and sociology to chemistry and computer information systems.

“You're starting to see things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, becoming more of a mainstay, and it's not one (academic) department where that lives,” Apigian said. “It's not computer science, it's not math, it's all disciplines here at MTSU, which is why we felt that creating an institute that goes across all departments, all colleges, is a good idea.”

Strong support from university administration, academic deans, and vice provost for research, which will oversee the institute, bodes well for the institute’s future.

“The Data Science Institute is the next step in the robust research capacity at Middle Tennessee State University,” said David Butler, vice provost for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies. “Under Dr. Apigian’s leadership, the institute will produce knowledge and information benefitting stakeholders while yielding positive effects to the economy of Middle Tennessee, the state of Tennessee and the Southeast.”

Three initial institute projects include: a “Blue Mars” initiative launched last year that is exploring the necessary knowledge for the successful colonization of Mars; an autonomous vehicles project that will study self-driving cars but will also be looking at drone technology; and a “Big Data Initiative” starting in the fall that will bring data sources together from different entities to have as a resource.

Having access to such projects through the Data Science Institute will help attract top faculty and prospective undergraduate and graduate students to the Blue Raider campus.

“Every new faculty member that comes to MTSU wants to work on big data. Students are coming here saying they want to be in analytics and into big data. We now have that exposure to be able to say, not only can you come here and get an education in this, but we have real-world projects,” Apigian said.

“You'll have the ability to do things that nobody else in the Southeast will have the opportunity to do. It has to be something that collaborates with partners, get big research dollars, and that will get MTSU the exposure that it should. We have the expertise here, now why don't we let the rest of the world know it?”

For more information about the Data Science Institute at MTSU, contact Apigian at 615-898-2375 or email [email protected].