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Maria Vaida is about to make history at Harrisburg University as she will become the first student to earn a doctoral degree from the University when she graduates in December.

A member of the first cohort of HU’s Data Sciences Ph.D. program established in 2017, Vaida successfully defended her research dissertation last month. And her commitment, hard work, and enthusiasm has blazed a trail for generations to come at HU.

“I was part of a cohort of extremely talented and smart students and it feels a bit surreal to chart the path as the first Ph.D. graduate from HU. But this achievement was a team effort, and I could not have done it without all of the hard work my doctoral committee and all my professors put into the program, the coursework, and my dissertation,” Vaida said. “On a personal level, I couldn’t be more thankful to my spouse for his unconditional support, encouragement, patience, and love throughout my studies. From a professional perspective, it holds an important significance to become a data science scholar at a time when this field is witnessing an unprecedented growth and is spilling more and more into the fabric of our economy and our lives.”

Dissertation Defense

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to all educational institutions, Vaida was able to defend her dissertation, before her dissertation committee virtually on Oct. 24.

Titled “Graph Neural Networks. Learning Graph Embeddings for Link Prediction and Node Classification Through HyperGraph Convolutions, Markovian Networks, and Variational Inference,” her dissertation introduced three graph algorithms with applications in the healthcare and academic domains. The first algorithm predicts multi-drug interactions for the purpose of mitigating adverse drug events in patients taking multiple prescriptions. This algorithm can be used by pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and pharmacists to improve patient outcomes and reduce unexpected side effects.

The second model predicts the domain of peer-reviewed articles based on their citations and content, and the third algorithm recommends citations between peer-reviewed papers, based on their subject matter and content. The models presented in my work can be easily extended to a large suite of graph-structured problems, such as product recommendations, social networks, or communication networks.

Vaida’s doctoral committee consisted of Professors Dr. Kevin Purcell, Dr. Rand Ford, Dr. Kevin Huggins, Dr. Roosbeh Sadeghian, and Dr. Glenn Mitchell. The dissertation defense process involved presenting the research, justifying the contribution to the data science field, and putting the work in the context of current data science trends. The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session with topics ranging from technical and research techniques, to broader data science questions.

HU Milestone

The first graduate of any program is notable, but the first graduate of a doctoral program is significantly more so because of the increased expectations of that student, said Purcell, who chaired Vaida’s dissertation committee. The first graduate of a one-of-a-kind program like the one created by Dr. Rand Ford is even more notable, he added.

Vaida’s research presents “incredibly valuable practical applications for biomedical domains,” Purcell said. Her accomplishment is a real success story for the University, the Data Science Program, and Vaida.

“Maria is a wonderful student who has a deep intellect and an incredible dedication to her studies.  She is a real autodidact which is obvious when you study her diverse contributions,” Purcell said. “During her time at HU, Maria has earned two graduate degrees with distinction, and three chapters of her recent doctoral work have already been published in very respectable venues.  While she was accomplishing all of this, she also maintained a career and has more recently expanded her family.  In a time when academia is deeply considering issues of work/life balance and equity, Maria is an awesome example of a dedicated student that did amazing work and was able to find a program that fit her needs and help to guide her to the success that she deserves.”

Dr. Mitchell, HU Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness, said he was incredibly honored to be a member of the Dissertation Committee for the University’s first Ph.D. candidate.

Vaida’s research is nothing short of innovative, Mitchell said, noting that “her work in creating new analytic methodologies for predicting adverse drug interactions was ground-breaking and will make a strong contribution to clinical medicine as well as Analytics. She has set a high standard for our Ph.D. students in all disciplines and that is the perfect way to start producing HU doctoral graduates who will advance the state of knowledge in the sciences.”

Path to a Ph.D.

Vaida completed her undergraduate studies in Journalism at Babes Bolyai and Spiru Haret Universities in her home country, Romania, in 2011. In 2013, she earned an MBA from DeVry University, and in 2017 an M.S. in Analytics from Harrisburg University.

She shares the birthplace of Dracula, being born in Transylvania, which is in the Northern part of Romania. Vaida has lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey with her husband and her three children for more than a decade.

Vaida said her family and faith define her life. She is the proud mother of Leah, who is 5 months old; Sarah, who just turned 10; and David, who is 12. When she isn’t studying, Vaida enjoys cooking and baking, although her kids think that this is not one of her strengths, reading history and non-fiction books, watching documentaries, studying new technologies, and watching her kids grow and learn. She also loves serving her church community alongside her husband, John, and teaching and mentoring others.

When she applied to Harrisburg University’s doctoral program, HU was among the first institutions in the country to offer analytics and data science Ph.D. level courses. As a HU M.S. graduate, she said she was very excited to get accepted into the Ph.D. program, not only because of the high educational standards at the University, but also because the exceptionally knowledgeable and world-class faculty and staff.

“I was lucky enough to have a wonderful committee chair, Dr Kevin Purcell, a brilliant and erudite Professor, and an incredible mentor. Dr. Purcell guided me through my work, publications, and dissertation defense. Whenever I would hit a roadblock along the way, he would proactively reach out and go out of his way to ensure I can progress further,” Vaida said. “I owe this achievement to Dr. Purcell, and I’m eternally grateful for all the work, the time, and the countless phone calls and emails that he graciously poured into this process.”

Going Forward

Having completed her Ph.D., Vaida plans to continue contributing to the data science field, whether through academic research or industry projects. Currently, she holds a Technical Lead position with a pharmaceutical company and hopes that her newly minted diploma and skills will be a valuable resource to her organization, and to the data science research community at large.

“It was a privilege to study at Harrisburg University and learn from the best and the brightest in the data science field. I would absolutely urge anyone who is considering pursuing graduate/doctoral degrees to do so here at HU,” Vaida said. “They will have the opportunity to advance their knowledge, learn the latest technologies, study the newest scholarly publications, participate in countless research projects, and be at the forefront of the jobs of the future.”

To learn more about Harrisburg University’s Data Sciences Ph.D. program and the Universities other doctoral programs, visit this link.

About Harrisburg University

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to a diverse student body. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu.

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