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Liz Sander, Data Scientist

Liz Sander (PhD, 2017)

Alumni micro-interview

What is your current job? 

I'm a Senior Data Scientist on the Data Science Research & Development team at Civis Analytics. The research part of my job involves studying new methods that could be relevant for our work, and making sure our existing methods are statistically sound. The development side is taking those methods and turning them into software tools data scientists can use, usually as Python libraries. I work with a range of statistical and optimization methods, from causal inference to integer programming. There's a lot of variety, which keeps it interesting and fun.

How did the training in E&E help you with your career?

A big part of my job is going from a broad question that isn't fully scoped, to a well-defined question and a useful answer. Grad school is a great way to learn how to ask good questions, define an approach, and interpret ambiguous results. The timeline and scope are definitely different in industry, but those core research skills are still very useful! On the practical side, I learned a lot of computational skills in the Allesina lab that still serve me well. Git, Python, R, randomization techniques, heuristic optimization, linear algebra, simulations-- those are just the ones that are top of mind right now! Transitioning from ecology to data science might not seem like the most obvious career move, but my grad school training is actually a really good foundation for the work I do today.

What is your fondest memory of your time in the program?

Working with the Wootton lab, I was lucky enough to go to Tatoosh Island to check out the study system and measure respiration rates for a couple of barnacle species. I had never done field work before, and I was so struck by the beauty and diversity of the intertidal system. I asked Tim questions about everything I saw, until I'm sure he was completely sick of me. Collecting the barnacle data was a total comedy of errors on my part, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. I was pretty confident in front of a terminal, but a total novice in the field! It gave me a ton of respect for field ecologists who can successfully plan and execute an experiment, and it also really helped me understand everything that goes into each data point. There's a lot of planning, and also many sources of error, and it's worth thinking about when you're analyzing someone else's data! It was a truly transformative experience for me as a researcher. Huge thanks to Tim for his deep knowledge and infinite patience on that trip, and for not laughing at me when I burned the Sharpie labels off of my samples in the muffle furnace.