Originally published in The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2015 issue.
by Cindy Deppe
It was all in the DATA for the fall break tour, Oct. 19-24, that connected 20 students seeking career insights with alumni who work in tech startups and at giga-giant Google, in the financial services industry, and in research at a renowned cancer center.
The New York City tour, sponsored by the Donald L. Wilson ’25 Program in Enterprise and Leadership, the Center for Careers, Life and Service, and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, was nicknamed DATA for its emphasis on data analysis, technology, and applications.
But it wasn’t all stats and spreadsheets as Grinnellians, old and new, learned from each other about the prospects for data-based careers.
For Emily Zabor ’03, a research biostatistician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the satisfaction of sharing career insights with students came from being reminded that “as an undergraduate, I had never heard of biostatistics or considered the field of public health. So I was excited to share my experiences and opportunities in this way.”
Zabor and co-worker Anne Eaton ’08 collaborate with doctors to design studies about new cancer drugs, for example, and use data to determine how many patients are needed for a valid study, plan the study design, develop hypotheses, and analyze results.
“My field is specialized but could be very appealing to Grinnellians because it’s cutting edge research and public service,” Zabor said.
Biology major Jarren Santos ’17 called the Sloan Kettering visit “pivotal” in his career exploration.
“The DATA tour helped me explore how research and data is applied to a company setting. These individuals were working with data in upcoming health innovations while collaborating with public health experts to determine the impact of new surgeries or the decrease in survivorship of a certain disease. I could totally imagine myself doing this.”
The impetus for the DATA tour grew from student interest and faculty recognition of the pervasiveness of data in today’s workplace. Earl D. Strong Professor of Social Studies Kathy Kamp accompanied the tour in her work as director of the College’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL).
“With the centrality of data in the modern world, we are doing students a service to engage with data and to visualize how data can be used in creative ways,” Kamp said. “The range of work environments and agendas was fascinating, as well as the diversity of majors among alumni who are now involved in the field.”
Grinnell Trustee Michael Kahn ’74 was a music major at Grinnell and is now an executive in corporate strategy and development for TIAA-CREF, a non-profit corporation. He has hosted a stream of interns the past 15 years and enthusiastically agreed to be on the short-term DATA tour schedule.
TIAA-CREF employees Chris Lee ’15, Derek Farnham ’13, Christina Cutlip ’83, traveled to New York to join Kahn in hosting the tour, as did employee Hans Erickson, son of professor emeritus Luther Erickson and Forum director emerita Jenny Erickson.
“There is great potential for TIAA-CREF to be a landing place for Grinnell students. What we do with data is diverse and impactful in a meaningful way. Deep analysis and modeling drives superior investments; it’s about getting better outcomes for the people we serve.”
Hilary Mason ’00, founder and CEO of Fast Forward Labs, gave students a peek into her 18-month-old machine intelligence research business, which reviews research papers, engineering systems, and products that demonstrate machine learning capabilities, then writes about the evolving technology for a general audience.
“All of the technical prototypes we demonstrated for the students use capabilities that only became possible in the last couple of years,” Mason says. The main point of our tour presentation was not so much the specific projects that we work on, but the idea that technology is always evolving, and if you want to succeed in this industry, it helps to be excited by that.”
Ajuna Kyaruzi ’17, a computer science major from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, has followed Mason’s varied and ambitious career path.
“I was very excited to get the chance to talk to Hilary Mason,” Kyaruzi says. “Her career was one I have been following for awhile, so speaking to her and learning more about her experiences post-Grinnell was a real opportunity. This past summer I interned at Twitter and got a glimpse of how data drives decisions that a technical company makes, so I was curious to see how other fields use and analyze their data.”
The DATA tour also included visits to Bloomberg with Kate Macey ’00, Tony Mitzak ’86, Joan Johnson ’92; to Lieberman Research Worldwide with Kasia Piekarz ’01; at Google with Peter Likarish ’04; at Makeover Solutions with Steve Elkes ’83; at CredSpark with Lev Kaye ’92; and at Edge Ed Tech with Ashantha Kaluarachchi ’05.
“Diversity of majors and experience was the primary takeaway from meeting alumni,” Santos says. “You do not have to major in a business-related field to partake in business and finance or major in a mathematical field to do research in biostatistics. The alumni really emphasized the fact that their diversity was a key component in their career success.”
Observing the interactions and connections among current and former students was especially rewarding for Monty Roper, Donald Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership and Wilson Program faculty director.
“What I most appreciated hearing from alumni is that they gained the ability to do things ‘they had no right doing’ because they didn’t question that they couldn’t. That’s the value of the liberal arts,” Roper says.
Kahn urges fellow alumni to consider reaching out to students, saying, “If you feel your success is what you took away from Grinnell, you are reaffirming the impact of Grinnell on the world by connecting with a student. It’s a very powerful connection.”
Alumni interested in sharing their workplace experiences with students on future break tours may contact Nate Dobbels, assistant director of alumni relations for career programs, 641-269-3204.