Doctoral Distinction

Ph.D. candidate first in data science program to receive NSF dissertation grant

KENNESAW, Ga. (Aug 6, 2019) — Kennesaw State University student Bob Vanderheyden recently became the first Ph.D. candidate in analytics and data science to receive a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), given for research designed to advance the scientific basis of science and innovation policy.
Bob Vanderheyden and Ying XieThe one-year, $16,000 award will support his research on the challenges of classifying ordinal data, which are ordered distinct values such as ratings scales in Yelp, versus nominal data, which are distinct classes or group, such as dogs or cats, when making decisions based on predictive analysis of that data.Vanderheyden, currently a full-time data scientist in marketing for IBM, is working under the guidance of Ying Xie, professor of information technology in the College of Computing and Software Engineering.
“Bob is in a unique position to be successful with his dissertation because he is a longtime practitioner in data science as well as having a very solid mathematical foundation,” Xie said. “With this knowledge and experience, he sees the real problems and can address them with solid ideas that can form new solutions.”
In his 25 years of professional experience, Vanderheyden has often encountered issues with classifying ordinal data, which requires clean-up work before any analysis can take place. The approach can double or triple the amount of data created, therefore making it costly and time consuming. He is exploring how to utilize a deep neural network – a complex computational model that behaves like neurons in the human brain – to classify data rather than changing the parameters set to get the desired results. In theory, the network could automatically perform tasks statisticians have been doing manually for years, Vanderheyden said.
“No such mechanism has been developed before,” said Xie, who first met Vanderheyden when he took his machine learning and text analysis courses as part of KSU’s doctoral program in data science. “Bob’s research will not only make a significant contribution to the whole field but will also have a greater impact as he plans to make his methodology available as an open source package for everyone to use.”
Through support and interaction with Xie, other faculty and his peers in the Ph.D. in data science program housed in the Analytics and Data Science Institute, Vanderheyden said that he was encouraged to apply for the NSF award. Jennifer Priestley, the Institute’s executive director and professor of statistics, first invited him to speak to one of her classes as an industry expert.   

“What has always impressed me about Bob is his ability to integrate theory and application, which is really the hallmark of our Ph.D. program and our biggest point of differentiation among data science graduate programs,” said Priestley, also associate dean of the Graduate College. “So, it is not surprising to me that he has been so successful in the program and ultimately the first recipient of an NSF dissertation grant.”
Vanderheyden aims to complete his research in the coming months and expects to publish and present his research at upcoming academic conferences. He is scheduled to graduate in 2020 and intends to pursue a career in academia.  
“This is an opportunity I never expected to advance this work in my field,” he said. “Being recognized by the NSF is really phenomenal and quite an honor. I feel very blessed to be here.”  
—Joëlle Walls


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the second-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 126 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit