A biweekly publication for faculty and staff

Data Analyst Helps Make Sense of Campus Stats

September 21, 2016

Image of UC Merced staff member Gary Lowe, seated in his office.Gary Lowe has always had a thing for numbers.

Whether figuring out the batting averages of players on his favorite baseball team when he was a kid or studying for economics classes as an undergraduate, Lowe thought numbers and statistics were fun and fascinating.

His penchant for all things numerical eventually led him to his current role at UC Merced as a senior research analyst for Institutional Research and Decision Support (IRDS). IRDS collects, analyzes and interprets statistical data related to the university. If there’s data that is collected or measured at UC Merced, Lowe knows how and where to find it.

The start of the academic year is busy for Lowe. Last week, IRDS conducted its annual fall census, a process that produces a statistical snapshot of UC Merced’s campus community including the number of enrolled students, their majors, where they’re from, grade point averages, the types of financial aid they receive and much more. The information helps the campus with all aspects of its strategic planning.

“I get calls from faculty members when they are working on grants and administrators who need to know about our graduation and retention rates,” Lowe said. “It’s interesting learning how the campus operates and what goes into how decisions are made.”

During the past few weeks, Lowe immersed himself in data as UC Merced prepared for its debut on the U.S. News & World Report list of the best universities in the nation. He conducted a brown-bag lunch to explain the magazine’s methodology and factors that helped the campus make its debut in only its 12th academic year.

In addition to analyzing data, Lowe’s other passion is education. Like the majority of UC Merced’s students, Lowe — who grew up in Denair — was the first in his family to graduate from college. He earned his bachelor’s and Master of Business Administration degrees from California State University, Stanislaus, and his doctoral degree in education from Fresno State. A wall in his office is adorned with pennants from colleges he’s attended or visited.

His parents, who came to California during the Dust Bowl migration, wanted him to attend college. But his route was not typical. He was married and worked full-time as a truck driver delivering California Lottery scratcher tickets while attending college part time at night.

Lowe and his wife, Sheila, have been married 32 years and have two children, Shane and Valerie.

Please describe what your job entails.

In my role, I provide data to campus departments and leaders for decision-making purposes. I assist administrators, faculty members, departments and staff members understand what the numbers mean, and I help communicate that information to other campus constituents.

What attracted you to UC Merced?

It was a new research university and I wanted to be a part of helping build it. It was interesting to watch the campus’s evolution and everyone’s excitement. Even people I knew at Stanislaus State and Fresno State were supportive of UC Merced. There was an attitude of "We’re all in this together," because at the end of the day, having a research university here in the Valley helps our children, helps the economy and supports higher education.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

Working with and helping people. It’s interesting to hear the different ways people approach us for data requests, and I get to interact with people from across the campus.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

The biggest challenge is trying to prioritize the many data requests that come to IRDS. Faculty and staff are often waiting for numbers from the department so they can submit a grant or determine how to plan for some upcoming event.

What initiatives, projects or plans have you done or are looking forward to in the coming year?

We just completed the fall census, which happens every year during the third week of classes. Fall census data is what everyone uses for reporting purposes, so we are getting a lot of inquiries. There’s also work related to the 2020 Project. The campus’s planning model allows for different scenarios to be run for projecting student enrollment, which assists campus leadership in making decisions that help meet the campus’s needs and priorities. I was able to be a part of those early conversations in the development of the 2020 Project, and it was fascinating to hear the discussions that went into developing an important component of UC Merced’s development as a major research university. 

Tell us something about you that people might not know.

I played in the brass section from fourth grade through high school, and met my wife in band class. I played tuba and she played the flute.