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UT-ORNL Big Data Program

UT-ORNL Big Data Doctorate First of Its Kind; Will Have Impact Across State

The use of big data—collecting and interpreting vast amounts of information—has rapidly grown in importance across areas ranging from health care to nuclear security.

To help meet that demand UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created the Data Science and Engineering Doctorate, the only one in the United States to pair a university and national laboratory and one of just three such big data doctoral programs in the nation overall.

The program, which was announced at the spring UT Board of Trustees meeting, hopes to enroll 15 PhD candidates when it begins this fall, with the eventual goal of having 100 students at any given time involved in engineering and data sciences.

In granting approval for the new program last week, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission noted that it is an answer to its call for the state’s higher education institutions to strengthen graduate-level education and address challenges befitting top research institutions.

“Students taking part in this new degree program will be able to help address some of the key challenges and concerns our world faces,” said Associate Professor Russell Zaretzki of UT’s Haslam College of Business, who will head the program.

“Business analytics, engineering, health sciences, and even national security are some of the areas where our graduates will be better positioned to help society through data science.”

UT Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, Tickle College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, and College of Communication and Information could all have students and faculty taking part in the new effort, along with the College of Engineering at UT Chattanooga and the UT Health Science Center in Memphis.

“This program will help industry, research, and academia alike,” said John Kobza, head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UT Knoxville. “Being able to understand and react to large amounts of data is something that will only continue to grow in importance.”

Modeled on the university’s highly successful energy science and engineering doctorate, the new big data offering will also be run out of the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education by UT and ORNL.

Faculty will be paired with doctoral candidates based on their area of research interest. While Zaretzki will serve as the program’s director, UT’s Lee Riedinger will continue to direct the Bredesen Center itself, as well as the program in energy science and engineering.

Former Governor Bredeson Presented Honorary Degree

Bredesen Center Director Lee Riedinger, from left, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Dixie Thompson, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, and UT Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport gather together as the school presented Gov. Bredesen with an honorary doctorate on May 11. Earlier that same day the Tennessee Higher Education Commission gave final approval to the latest degree program of the joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Bredesen Center, a doctorate in big data.


Riedinger and ORNL Computational Sciences and Engineering Division Director Shaun Gleason were key figures in the development of the center, which has received $6 million in funding in Governor Haslam’s proposed budget.

“Our program has been a big success and a new model for interdisciplinary graduate education linking the resources of a major university and a national laboratory,” said Riedinger. “This new program expands that model to another area of national need and is expected to continue the tradition of excellence within the Bredesen Center, ORNL, and UT.”

The vast computing prowess at ORNL will be used to enhance the analytical side of the program, while courses in entrepreneurship and policy making will help round out the experience.

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