Any week including Ada Lovelace Day and the Day of the Girl seems like the perfect time to write about the women kicking math and taking names at Noodle AI. We’re so lucky to have a number of fantastic women leading data science projects here. Today I sat down with three of them to find out how they got started on their journey, what they love about what they do, and what inspires them.

Rupal Agrawal, VP of Data Science

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I loved hearing our VP of Data Science Rupal Agrawal‘s stories about growing up in India in a family that valued education. Their belief in her helped set her up for success when she found herself drawn to the science track in high school and became one of only three girls in her class (a trend that continued into her undergraduate and post graduate experiences – something women here in the U.S. are all too familiar with). One benefit of her supportive background and aptitude for learning was having the confidence to compete for her spot at the head of the class, as well as the ability. This inner drive has kept her motivated throughout her life and helped her understand how to create opportunities for people to understand and buy into her unique methodologies and creative way of thinking about data science, software, optimization, and processes for solving business problems.

One thing that stood out about Rupal as we spoke was how much she cares about helping other women and girls succeed, not just in STEM fields but in whatever they want to do with their futures. When we talked about our mentors and women we thought were good role models, some of her choices were aimed at women in tech, like Sheryl Sandberg, but more were examples for girls in high school and college just embarking on life’s journey, or women in AI; role models like Fei-Fei Li and Nandita Naik. I’d heard of Fei-Fei Li and her groundbreaking work in computer vision, cognitive neuroscience, and diversity in AI at Stanford. High school student Nandita Naik‘s work connecting AI and art and inspiring young girls to explore STEM was new to me, however. What inspiring choices!

Siva Devarakonda, Director of Data Science

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Siva Devarakonda, Director of Data Science, experienced similar challenges in being one of only a handful of women in school and, often, in the workplace. As one of three girls in her family, she mentioned that having a mom who was a teacher helped create opportunities where education and eventual financial independence lead to strong and confident women who could support themselves. This wasn’t always easy in a culture where women are often pushed toward marriage and not challenging careers – Siva was motivated to build a life where she could have both if she wanted. She strove to prove herself throughout her life, and while she feels more confident in her successes she believes she still has much more to contribute to society. She strongly believes that women can inspire others into STEM fields simply by their presence and help break stereotypes and broaden perspectives. I loved hearing her family motto: Be fearless and dream big.

Siva’s philosophy of dreaming big has helped her through her entire career. It even informs her patent filings! She said the best part of being creative in problem solving and coming up with patentable ideas is to simply allow yourself to dream of everything you can do with that challenge and be open to inviting smart team members to join you in thinking it through, as some of the best ideas come from collaboration. We talked a bit about mentors and role models, as well, and Siva mentioned a few that stood out: Anima Anandkumar, Director of Machine Learning and Research at NVIDIA, and Indian Olympic Boxer Mary Kom. Mary Kom is an inspiration for reaching the peak of her career, taking a break for her kids, then coming back at the top of her game and winning the best medal of her career. Another inspiration for Siva is Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake, who remained focused and driven even as she grew her family – during an IPO! All are examples of women who are living their whole, complete lives – not compartmentalizing themselves – and excelling.

Jenn Gamble, Principal Data Scientist

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Two things all three of the women I spoke with had in common were often being the only woman in the room and having a strong mom who supported their dreams and aspirations, no strings attached. Jenn Gamble, Principal Data Scientist, is no exception. Everyone had amazing stories about the ways their mothers and families supported them and taught them how to have grit and drive, but Jenn’s mom might have been the most intentional about it. A favorite story she told me was of watching movies as a kid and having her mom sit her down for a postmortem after to reframe what they just watched; asking her, for example, what Snow White could have done differently to not need rescuing by a prince. That is a great way to create a mindset that will take you all the way to your Ph.D. in an interesting and challenging field.

Jenn said she’s been lucky in life to be surrounded by art as well as science – in fact, she was a modern dancer through her 20s, merging her love of math with her love of art by creating a modern dance piece about math at one point. Her influences and role models come equally from the art and science worlds. One major influence was Michelle Pearson, who also combines dance with science and mathematical subjects. Math is art, after all, so seeing math and dance together makes complete sense. This brought us around to the topic of art and science. Jenn is deeply concerned about ethics in AI and data science and leads some of our work here at Noodle focusing on solving problems while centering ethical AI practices. We talked a bit about how you need to be deeply creative to solve problems with advanced data science, and that art – that need for a bit of human spark – is as essential for turning a business problem into a well-framed analytical one as it is for composing a piece of choreography.

Another of Jenn’s influences is Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychology professor known for her research on mindsets. We talked a bit about fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets, which led Jenn to leave me with an interesting thought: you don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to do data science – you need an aptitude for math and a creative, problem-solving mentality. In fact, she said you should only pursue any Ph.D. if the subject is something you are truly passionate about and want to understand deeply. She has had a diverse career and education simply by following her interests and passions to their fullest. Rupal said the same thing – a great data scientist can come from any discipline. If you are at the top of your field and also love data science and solving problems, you can teach yourself the skills you need to bring data science to what you do.

We’re fortunate at Noodle AI to have so many strong, smart women working on bringing data science to life for our clients. We can’t wait to feature more of our amazing Noodlers on the blog as time goes on.

Who’s your role model? Let us know on Twitter!

 

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