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Informatics: A Discipline for Problem-Solvers

UL Online -- Tue, 09/14/2021 - 2:14pm

 Associate Professor Dr. Michael Totaro has been a part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Informatics programs for undergraduate and graduate students since the programs’ inception. With a specialty in machine learning, Dr. Totaro has been named an Outstanding Teacher and is known among his students as a gifted communicator across disciplines and an invested mentor.

“He’s very encouraging,” says M.S. Informatics alum Lisa Olinger. “We always joke that he can make you believe you can do anything.”

Computing for Business and the Business of Computing

Dr. Totaro, originally from New Orleans, came to the University in 1977 and completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1982. He returned for his MBA in 1988, after working in programming and software development. 

The next year, Dr. Totaro became the IT director for the College of Business and soon after began teaching a computing course for undergraduate business students.

He became full-time faculty in 1996, earned another master’s degree in telecommunications in 1999, and a Ph.D. in computer science in 2007. 

Around a decade ago, a plan took shape to build an undergraduate informatics degree program within the newly-formed School of Computing and Informatics.

“A very wise choice was made to leverage these computing programs, mainly computer science and management information systems, such that we could pull them together into a single sort of holistic ’School of Computing and Informatics,’” says Dr. Totaro. “In short, we accommodate all things computing.”

Machine learning professor Dr. Michael Totaro is also the program director for the M.S. in Informatics.

In 2018, the M.S. in Informatics enrolled its first students. This year, the University expanded its enrollment opportunities further by offering the graduate informatics program both on campus and 100% online. 

Dr. Totaro serves as program coordinator and academic advisor for graduate students in both programs.

“We have a rock-solid program and a rock-solid school with great faculty, great students, and great staff,” says Dr. Totaro.

What is informatics?

Boiled down to its simplest idea, informatics is the science of data and information, but the discipline has a wide range of applications. Every student brings their unique background to the classwork and then can bring their education to a broad spectrum of career pursuits. 

“I think the prospective master’s in informatics grad student should be interested in learning how to solve problems; has a way of engaging critical thinking, taking a complex problem and breaking it into smaller sub-problems,” says Dr. Totaro.

Dr. Totaro puts great value on communication and collaboration. He knows technical jargon can be intimidating or alienating to people who feel like outsiders in STEM, so it’s important to make discussions accessible so different people feel welcome to contribute their voices, ideas, and experiences.

“[Informatics students must] recognize the importance, and really the criticality of engaging in conversations with others outside of our own sort of technical domain,” says Dr. Totaro. “So, I should be able to engage in a conversation, not only with other computing people, but also with the accountants, with the marketing, sales, media, whomever.”

This idea of accessibility underpins the Master of Science in Informatics degree program because it can build on any bachelor’s degree. Graduate students without a technical background begin in the Introduction to Informatics graduate course, which covers computing hardware/software infrastructures, programming in Python, databases, and network Systems, along with the Foundations of Informatics course before tackling core courses in human-computer interaction, systematic methods, network management, systems development, and governance. 

Informatics in action

The question of how a student can use a master's in informatics is really a question of what kind of problems that student wants to solve.

“Informatics is quite focused on solutions,” says Dr. Totaro. “If a person has interest in technology, computing, information, and data, and how all that can be wrapped together, bundled together and used for specific purposes, informatics is certainly worth looking at.”

Informatics graduates attain jobs in data science, network and cyber security, IT business management, transportation infrastructure, and control systems engineering, among other disciplines. Opportunities are expanding through growth and adaptation in machine learning, design and management.

“We’re going to see a definite expansion of intelligent systems,” says Dr. Totaro.

Dr. Totaro is quick to point out he doesn’t foresee evil autonomous artificial intelligence in our future, but that the sophistication of problem-solving technology will continue to develop and evolve as more people are able to bring their skills to the field.

“We don’t have to have machines that think as we do, but we can have machines that accomplish intelligent things that are beneficial to society.” 

And opportunities to use an informatics education will continue to grow and evolve, because as Dr. Totaro says, “computing is ubiquitous.”

Request information today about UL Lafayette’s M.S. in Informatics program and how it can propel your career in data science, analytics, health informatics and much more.