Donald Frederick ‘14, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Quantitative Social Science

University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science alumni push boundaries and innovate across many facets of industry. Whether it’s developing seamless UX interfaces, engineering software at fortune 500 companies, working in big data or keeping networks secure; our esteemed alumni use their applied skills education from MPCS to problem-solve, create, and elevate the computer science field. Learn from their stories and discover how a CS background can prepare you for cutting edge careers and leadership roles.

Donald Frederick University of Chicago

Donald Frederick, Class of 2014, is an Institute for Quantitative Social Science Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University. Donald shares why the MPCS is perfect for PhD graduates who want to gain a solid foundation in computer science.

Did you come to MPCS with a computer science background?

Yes and no. I had no formal training in CS, but I had been programming since an early age. My earliest memories of programming were with a couple elementary school friends screwing around in QBASIC. I later went on to Visual Basic and eventually Linux in high school under the tutelage of an uncle who was a programmer. I also had a couple years worth of experience in data science programming in my PhD program prior to entering the MPCS.

What was your favorite MPCS course? Why?

If I had to pick a favorite course, it would be Algorithms. Gerry Brady is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in a university setting.

In my view, a clear understanding of algorithms separates just hacking pieces of code together via stackoverflow from being an engineer and thinker. The course provides the gateway into that way of thinking. 

What is your favorite memory from your time spent as a MPCS student?

I can't say I have a single favorite memory. The best memories are of the many friends that I made during the program. Many of those friends have become collaborators on projects.

How has your MPCS education helped you achieve your professional goals?

MPCS provided me with the credentials and the breadth and depth of knowledge that I've been able to use in my professional career. Being able to say that I have a MS in CS has definitely perked interests when I've talked with people. This might be unique to my area of the academy where people may be able to program a little to do data analysis, but don't have a solid foundation in CS.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

My typical day involves a lot of research. I am a part of a brand new program inside Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences. Our program, Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing is attempting to "to synthesize knowledge across disciplines on topics fundamental to human well-being, and to reflect upon how such synthesis, methodologically, is best carried out."

My day to day is generally focused around research for the program. For example, I am currently working on a massive review of the social science of work in relation to human flourishing. This research involves finding the relevant research, rating it, as well as running meta-analyses. I generally use R for statistics and Python for web scraping.

I also work on providing technology for the program. This comes in various forms such as maintaining the program's website. But I also have interest and projects in creating platforms to accelerate the sort of reviews and analyses that I am currently doing. I also advise students and others who are carrying out quantitative research.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

Being a researcher at a major academic institution is sort of a dream position. You are able to work on interesting projects with a lot of freedom in collaboration with many interesting and smart people. I love the challenge of understanding such a complex and dynamic system as human flourishing using quantitative measures. Human flourishing, as a grand ideal, was often (and still is) the purview of philosophers and the humanities. I think that the social, biological, and physical sciences have a lot to offer in measuring and understanding human flourishing as well as amplifying it.

Would you recommend MPCS to others? If so, why?

Yes, most definitely. It was extremely helpful for me and other students who were in a similar position to me. There were several other PhD students who were in the program. We all had an expressed interest in bringing computational power and skills to our respective fields. I would highly recommend the program for other PhD students at Chicago who want to gain a solid grounding in CS.

I've also seen how it has helped those outside the academy, in the private sector. From what I saw from friends in the program, they were able to achieve their career objectives--whether that was a career switch into CS or improving their skillsets for those already in a CS career.

Beyond the coursework and skills that you acquire, you have the chance to meet fantastic persons; many of whom will become collaborators and friends.

I also liked the mix of students in the program. There were students in the program that were pursuing their degrees at different paces. It was great to meet those who were still working as they completed the degree because they were able to bring in current real world issues from their work experience into the classroom.

What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to UChicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science?

As cliché as it sounds, you get out what you put in. Use your time at UChicago to make friends and form connections. To challenge yourself and find interesting projects to work on.

Don't be afraid to look around campus outside of the CS department for interesting projects that you could help with. The skills that you acquire in MPCS could be useful for many laboratories. As an example, for an advanced database course I designed a new database in PostgreSQL for my lab to store the neural data that we record. There are plenty of CS challenges out there waiting for someone to come along and help with.

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