Masters of Analytics - Life 2.0 with Douglas Trent
Returning to Georgia Tech Prompted a Second Career and Dream Job with NASA
Douglas Trent is Senior Data Scientist in the Office of the CIO at NASA’s Langley Research Center, leading teams to accelerate the adoption of AI technologies in support of NASA’s digital transformation strategy. Current projects incorporate machine learning, computervision, information retrieval, natural language processing, robotic process automation, loT devices, and augmented/virtual reality, among others.
Prior to joining NASA, Trent retired from a 26-year career with IBM, where he managed the R&D of IBM’s global Personal Computer product lines, authored the corporation’s human-centered design strategy (personally coining the term “human-centric computing”), and helped lead the development of the world’s first Smart Phone, Simon, in 1992. He retired as IBM’s Business Development Executive responsible for strategic relationships with key software partners including Oracle, Citrix, and Microsoft.
Trent resides in Florida with his wife, Jane, and their two sons.
Our recent interview with this Triple-Jacket yielded some interesting insights, as well as a peek inside some of his current NASA projects.
You were already a Double-Jacket, with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech (followed by an MBA from Duke). Why did you return for your Online Master of Science in Analytics?
After retiring I traveled the world but remained interested in business intelligence and decision sciences. I found the rapid advancements in AI/machine learning extremely interesting. When Georgia Tech announced an online master's in analytics, it was my chance to pursue my passion for data science while living wherever I chose.
I researched other online data analytics master's programs, but I knew the quality of GT programs and the impact of having Georgia Tech credentials. Ultimately, the decision was emotional. Ironic that a data-driven decision maker would think with his heart—but how could I not return to my alma mater?
How did this “course change” lead you to NASA?
OMS Analytics requires a practicum within the industry, so I applied to 35+ firms including NASA to pursue an internship. I’ve always been a space nerd. I grew up in the 60s, enthralled with the space race, watching NASA launch satellites into orbit and land men on the moon.
I was vacationing with the family in Virginia when I got the interview request from NASA’s Langley Research Center, just up the road. That had to be a sign. I interviewed and got the job offer a few days later. I had to pinch myself. I was a Data Scientist intern on the central information team at NASA! My childhood space-era dreams had come true.
What was your OMS Analytics practicum project with NASA?
My team was assigned a number of “digital transformation” projects involving workflow automation at Langley. One project focused on parking logistics across the 764-acre campus.
We considered numerous options including acoustic sensors and magnetometers, but being data science nerds (and deep learning neural nets are cool), we adapted Facebook's “convolutional neural network” (CNN) models in facial recognition to recognize vehicles instead of people, utilizing cameras on building rooftops.
Our innovative solution garnered NASA's attention and I received an offer to continue full-time as a NASA contractor at the end of my internship.
What NASA projects are you currently working on?
Quite a few, but almost all are built on what I learned from my analytics classes in time series, simulation, regression, and machine learning. From the humble Langley internship projects, we’ve extended deep learning CNN models to a variety of new use cases.
Langley is currently pioneering the future of unmanned aerial systems (UAS’s) in urban centers by using CNN models to detect the locations of people below for safer flight operations.
In space, we’re using CNN to detect methane clouds on Saturn’s moon, Titan, the only other place in the solar system with liquid lakes and an evaporation/precipitation cycle like Earth’s.
If there is other life in our solar system, it may be hidden below the icy crust of the oceans on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, so we’re using CNN models to analyze patterns in the ice.
Back here on Earth, we’re using CNN to monitor the health of the world’s coral reefs, which global warming and increasing ocean acidity are killing.
Last fall, we developed a coral reef project with OMS Analytics as a new practicum for the program. We partnered with Coral Vita, a company that’s growing coral on land-based farms for reseeding damaged reefs.
Students analyzed LIDAR imagery from NASA's satellite, CALIPSO, and then identified which reefs would benefit from reseeding. I’m very proud to share that during the practicum, Coral Vita was named winner of the £1 million Earthshot Prize by Prince William. A very big deal!
I named the project the Geophysical Observations Toolkit for Evaluating Coral Health or as NASA now calls it.... GOTECH!
What do you see as the “Next Big Thing” in data analytics?
One of the great things about working for NASA is incubating future technology and not only seeing what the next big thing is, but participating in bringing it into being. My bet on the next big thing is AI/Machine Learning. It's already here but it’s still in its infancy and has miles to go.
How has earning your OMS in Analytics impacted your career?
Life has key inflection points, where certain decisions affect everything that follows – your first job, who you marry, etc.
Tech’s OMS Analytics program was one of those inflection points for me. Just about everything I’m doing at NASA, I first learned through the analytics program. I’ve taken things to the next level, but the foundations were laid by the program.
I think of it as Life 2.0. Nothing that I’m doing now would have been possible without my analytics background. Georgia Tech anticipated the future of data science---even emphasizing R and Python back in 2017. Those two languages dominate the data science field now. I didn’t know either before the program.
What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in analytics?
Seriously consider the GT OMS Analytics program. It’s not too early and, I can testify, it’s never too late.
The Georgia Tech brand on your resume raises your currency with employers. That and the amazingly low cost placed it as an outlier at the top left of my ROI scatter plot.
Online instruction lets you suit your schedule. Everyone's become fluent in teleconferencing and remote work and I found the program a great way to network and learn with virtual teams all over the country and around the world.
Sometimes to go further, you have to go back. NASA uses this trick with its deep space probes, orbiting back to Earth for a final gravity boost. I’m thankful to Georgia Tech and OMS Analytics for boosting me to my current voyage – in career and life. It’s a pretty sweet ride.
For those who wish to read more about the GOTECH project, NASA has just published a report: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20220010955
Written by: Teresa Daniels
Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) is a top-5 nationally ranked interdisciplinary data analytics program taught 100% online with the same courses and renowned faculty as the on-campus program. Designed in a self-paced format ideal for working professionals, OMS Analytics students can customize their curriculum via three specialized analytics tracks and earn their degree in 24-36 months while working full-time. Program tuition is under $10,000 and a GMAT/GRE score is not required for admission.