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Data science for all: New professor Hank Ibser

Lane Shaffer

Staff Writer

Photo from Willamette University website

Which new professor at Willamette plays ultimate frisbee, could beat you in poker and walks around wearing a full spectrum light spectrometer for his research? If you guessed Hank Ibser, clinical associate professor of data science, you would be correct.

Ibser joined the Bearcat family this fall semester as part of the recently announced School of Computing and Information Science. In addition to teaching data science at Willamette, the former UC Berkeley lecturer is conducting research on the influence of light exposure on sleeping habits and health in collaboration with three colleagues.

Ibser particularly enjoys teaching the introductory statistics course here as it emphasizes visualization and storytelling: “That stuff can really open a lot of student’s eyes and make them passionate about using data to tell stories and make arguments in ways that they didn’t realize.”

Data science was not his original plan. He entered college as a math major and preferred abstract mathematics. “I thought [math] was beautiful and abstract and really interesting on its own, regardless of whether it had any application to the real world,” Ibser began. “In some ways I enjoyed that it was pure and didn’t really have a relationship with the real world.” Apart from math, he also dabbled in poker and backgammon in college.

Now however, he focuses on applied data science and research that solves problems in the real world. When Ibser entered his doctoral program at UC Berkeley, he had to take a few data analysis classes and realized that his background in math and probability had set him up to apply his knowledge in data science.

“My PhD thesis was about the effect of increased imprisonment on crime rates. It was pretty applied work," Ibser explained. “That was part of the shift towards doing data analysis stuff.” Over two decades later, he is still shedding light on societal problems through research. “We know as human beings that if you get bright light late at night, it’s harder to sleep and can throw your circadian rhythms off, and bright light during the day tends to reset and recalibrate and kind of stabilize your circadian rhythm, but there isn’t really good data,” Ibser described.

He wears a full spectrum light spectrometer that his colleague developed on his shirt. The device transmits data on the light it receives to an app on his phone. “There are three of us that are currently collecting data on ourselves as part of a preliminary for a grant that we’re working on. Starting next spring we’re gonna start collecting data on subjects and recording their light exposure and their sleep patterns and see what the relationship is.”

Ibser hopes that with this research they will be able to make recommendations that will enable people to get better sleep, such as utilizing light bulbs that can mimic the dim, reddish light that occurs during sunsets at evening hours to help stabilize circadian rhythms.

He references his research and data collection in the classroom because it engages students in the practical applications of what they’re learning and allows them to see real time data collection. Ibser also encourages students to try out data science even if they don’t think they’ll enjoy it. “Just recognize that whatever you’re interested in, there’s probably data, there’s probably ways to think about applying data science methods to whatever you study.”

If you’re thinking about taking data science, Ibser particularly recommends the data science 151 and 152 track. “The first course is very much interested in providing a non-mathy introduction to data science where students have an ability to storytell with data and do visualization and things like that. There is computing, but there’s not a lot of math or theory,” he continued. “In the second half there’s a little bit more around statistics and inference and analysis of data that I think is also really useful and important.”

Ibser’s journey to Willamette gave him the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to be a valuable addition to the new school of Computing and Information Science. Drop by his office in Ford 307 or sign up for data science 151/152 to get to know him even better!

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