Jessica Kirkpatrick is the Director of Data Science for an education tech company called InstaEDU. InstaEDU offers on-demand, online tutoring for high school and college students. She helps people in her company make decisions and improve the experience for their students and tutors by analyzing the data that is collected through their website. Jessica has a PhD in Astrophysics and spent many years studying dark energy in the cosmos before switching careers to data science. Jessica is also the Blogger-in-Chief for Women in Astronomy as part of her membership of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy. As blogger-in-chief she manages and edits the posts from their eight regular contributors and guest bloggers. She regularly writes blog posts for Women in Astronomy and Astrobetter about Women in STEM, the tech industry, and best practices for coding and data visualization. Jessica shares her story and insights with us….
Sarah Worsham: Please tell us what your day-to-day is like.
Jessica Kirkpatrick: I spend most of my time trying to answer questions for other people within my company using our data. I answer questions like: How can me make the experience better for our users? Which users are most valuable? What makes users return to our site? What is most important in retaining users? What subjects are we serving well / not well? Which advertising campaigns are working and which aren’t? What do we expect our growth/revenue to look like moving forward? What is the life-time value of our customers?
I answer these questions by doing statistical analysis of the data we collect using a programming language called python. I create visualizations of the data that can be shared with others in the company and investors. My day involves pulling data from our database, reducing it, analyzing it, and communicating these results to others within the company. I also build tools and visualizations so people in the company can monitor how the site is doing automatically.
Sarah: What’s the highlight of your day?
Jessica: I really enjoy working in tight-knit teams and collaborating with others. The highlight of my day is when one of my coworkers is struggling with a problem, and I can help them solve it using data analysis.
Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?
Jessica: I have always been fascinated with understanding how things work. My favorite subjects in school were math and science. But I really knew I wanted to become a scientist when I took high school physics. It was the perfect combination of problem-solving and math. It felt like solving puzzles all day, I just absolutely loved it (and still do).
Sarah: What sparked your interest in astrophysics?
Jessica: During my freshman year at Occidental College, I learned about dark matter and got involved with a professor who was doing astrophysics research. I became really fascinated with the make up of the universe, how it was created, and what it’s eventual fate would be. I continued to study astrophysics for the next twelve years, and my PhD at Berkeley involved the study of dark energy.
Sarah: You moved from academic research to the tech field… Was there something that sparked this change? How did you make the transition and what insights can you share with others about making such a career change?
Jessica: There were a lot of factors that motivated my change from academia to the tech industry:
- New Challenge – I had been doing astrophysics research for 12 years and I was ready for a new challenge. I felt like I would learn and grow more by switching to the tech industry than I would by staying in academia.
- State of the field – Because data science is a newer field than astronomy I have the opportunity to make a bigger impact and do more innovative work. I am excited to be one of the pioneers in this field.
- Work environment – My research work was isolating and solitary. I wanted to work in an environment that was more collaborative and team based. I also found the pace of academic research to be a little slow. Because most work is done for the purpose of publication, the level of rigor and depth of analysis is quite intense. This means projects can go for months or even years. In the tech industry projects tend to be fast-paced and less in-depth. This is a better fit for my personality and work style.
- Location – I wanted to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area where my family lives. There are lots of tech jobs here, but very few astrophysics positions.
- Finances – My initial salary offers for tech positions were 2-3 times more than my initial salary offers for academic positions.
- Lifestyle – I was tired of working evenings / weekends and feeling like my job was never done as an academic/researcher. I wanted a job that was challenging and fulfilling, but also would allow me more work-life balance.
In terms of making the transition, I have written about how I did this in several blog posts on Women in Astronomy. I suggest readers look at those posts if they are interested in learning more about how to break into the tech / data science field.
Sarah: What aspects of your career, schooling and experience helped you get the job you’re at today?
Jessica: While studying astrophysics I spent a lot of time solving problems and trying to find patterns in data. I became really comfortable with math, statistics, and computer programming. I also learned a lot about visualizing data and communicating complicated results to people. All of these skills helped me make the transition into the tech industry and obtain my current job.
Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?
Jessica: My high school AP Physics teacher, Andrew Elby, encouraged me to pursue physics and become a scientist. I remember going in at lunch to talk to him about some physics problems, and he said to me: “You have a real talent for this, you should consider majoring in physics.” No teacher had ever said anything like that to me before, it gave me the confidence to pursue a degree in physics even though I knew it was a “hard” major and that there weren’t many women who studied it. Andrew is now a physics professor at the University of Maryland, and continues to mentor me to this day, there were many times during graduate school when I struggled and would call him for support. It makes such a difference to have someone believe in you and be your cheerleader through difficult times.
I also was really inspired by my mother growing up. She has her PhD in psychology and was able to perfectly demonstrate being a very successful career woman while also having a healthy and balanced home life. It was such a blessing to have her as an example and I continually try and emulate her in my adult life.
Sarah: Are there any skills or courses that have been more useful than you initially expected?
Jessica: Teaching has been an incredibly useful skill. I started tutoring and teaching physics and math as an undergraduate, and I still teach through my company’s web site InstaEDU. I don’t think I ever truly understand something until I have to explain it to someone else. Because so much of my current job is explaining complicated analysis to various people within my company, the skill of breaking down problems and explaining them to non-experts is incredibly valuable. Also becoming comfortable talking in front of the classroom really helped me with my presentation and public speaking skills. I used to get so nervous when I had to talk in front of people that I would visibly shake. Now I frequently talk in front of large groups and actually enjoy it.
I never had done any computer programming until I was an undergraduate at Occidental College. Many of my peers had been coding for years and I felt very behind. But I spent a lot of time learning how to program both through classes and independent study projects, and it’s been one of the best skills I have ever learned. There are so many amazing things you can do with a computer, and learning how to code has opened up so many job opportunities for me. It’s also a lot of fun to get a computer to do work for you. Things that would take forever to do by hand can happen almost instantly by writing computer programs to do it for you.
Sarah: Did you have to overcome any obstacles to get where you are? How did you do that?
Jessica: I have a learning disability which makes it very challenging for me to read and write. For a long time I just thought I wasn’t very smart and that was why things took me so long. I was able to make real breakthroughs in high school when I started working with an educational therapist who specializes in learning disabilities. My educational therapist helped me understand where my strengths lie and how to accommodate my weaknesses. He also helped me realize that I could more effectively process written words by using books on tape or having my computer read text out loud to me. Because of my learning disabilities, my PhD took a little longer than average and I am totally ok with that. I think it’s important to forge your own path, and go at a pace that feels right for you. I’m glad I took extra time to complete my schooling, but was healthy and had balance in my life during that time.
Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?
Jessica: I have experienced sexist remarks and sexual harassment during my career. When I was younger I had a difficult time knowing how to respond when these things happened. While a graduate student at UC Berkeley I was the head coordinator for the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences and through work within that group I learned a lot about how to combat these issues and discuss them in a direct and productive manner. Now when someone says something that makes me uncomfortable (or that I think is discriminatory) I address it head-on. As a result, I rarely experience problems these days, or if I do experience a problem, it is usually resolved quite quickly and doesn’t escalate. I write a lot about how to combat harassment, gender bias, imposture syndrome, bullying, and other issues that women in STEM face on the Women in Astronomy blog.
Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?
Jessica: There are lots of ways to get involved in the tech industry and gain experience with data analysis. Go to a tech meet-up or hack-a-thon. Do a Kaggle Competition project. Take a course on Google or Coursera. Do a summer internship with a tech company. Or just try building your own webpage or app. There are lots of small tech companies that would love extra help. Check out AngelList for opportunities.
Sarah: You’re very active in helping women and girls in STEM careers. Is there anything you think parents should do to encourage their children to be interested in STEM?
Jessica: I really would encourage parents to expose their children to a lot of different activities and subjects regardless of their gender. My parents weren’t astronomers or athletes or artists, but they exposed me to all those things growing up and encouraged me to explore many different interests. I played with Barbies and Legos. I conducted experiments and baked bread. I played basketball and made quilts. One of the reasons I do STEM outreach and education is I want the next generation to see that engineers and physicists are not just old, white, men… but come in all ages, races, and genders. I have participated in programs like Expanding Your Horizons, Girls Inc, and Women 2.0 and find them very rewarding.
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