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A Transformative Summer Journey: Exploring Data Science for Social Impact

By: Shana McDowell, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Agricultural & Biological Engineering

Embarking on the third year of my PhD journey at NC State Department of Agricultural & Biological Engineering, under the guidance of Dr. Daniela Jones, I found myself at a crossroads of possibilities. Little did I know that a 7-week experience with the Capacity Accelerator Network’s (CAN) Data Science for Social Impact Summer Program at the University of Chicago would reshape my perception of data science and its boundless potential.

Discovering Data Science’s Depth:

As I set foot at the University of Chicago, my understanding of data science was limited to its technical aspects – a fusion of computer science, mathematics, and statistics to mine insights from diverse datasets. However, the program swiftly revealed that data science is much more than coding and algorithms. It’s a symphony of interdisciplinary collaboration, weaving together the narratives hidden within data pieces.

The journey commenced with intensive coursework, immersing us in Python programming, machine learning, statistics, and geospatial analysis. This period was both exhilarating and challenging, pushing me to refine my coding skills while embracing new concepts. This phase fostered resilience, teaching me to streamline code, apply functions to dataframes, and manipulate geospatial data – all crucial skills for the road ahead.

Shana McDowell in front of her presentation at the Summer Institute.

Nurturing Collaboration and Growth:

The program’s structure, including nightly assignments and office hours, paved the way for my intellectual growth. While the pressure was at times daunting, it was through these moments that bonds were forged. We became a cohesive cohort, sharing lunches and breaks, finding solace in each other’s company during this demanding period.

Reflecting on the program’s structure, I realized that a balanced schedule, interspersed with learning and dedicated homework time, nurtured comprehension and camaraderie. Nonetheless, these trials only solidified our unity and resilience.

Group of participants at the U of Chicago summer institute.

Embracing a Social Impact Project:

Transitioning from coursework to project work, the program’s impact deepened. Collaborating on a social impact project for Californians for Pesticide Reform not only expanded my skill set but also aligned with my agricultural-focused PhD research. It underscored the power of data science to tackle real-world issues, applying programming skills to shed light on complex challenges.

Guided by mentors and using organizational tools like Monday, we navigated project planning and communication. Weekly progress presentations further honed our abilities, while peer feedback cultivated our confidence. Over-communication within our group proved crucial, fostering mutual support and synergy.

Insights from Research Talks:

Engaging in weekly research talks opened doors to diverse data science applications. The value extended beyond academics, preparing us for the dynamic job market. The talks revealed that data science isn’t just about coding and algorithms; it’s the art of crafting compelling narratives from intricate data threads.

Nurturing Community and Impact:

Throughout the program, the camaraderie among cohort members was a beacon of support. Shared experiences of city exploration, concerts, and museums bonded us beyond the academic sphere. Yet, the absence of early, specifically organized social events was noted. Introducing such events sooner could have strengthened our sense of community and inclusivity.

Group presentation

A Transformative Journey: 

In retrospect, these 7 weeks have been transformative. The program fortified my data science skills, widened my network, and cultivated a supportive community. It unveiled the collaborative core of data science, emphasizing effective learning and mutual support. Equipped with newfound confidence and a passion for data-driven storytelling, I’m eager to embrace future challenges and contribute positively to this dynamic field.

As I step back into my PhD journey at NC State, I carry with me the rich experiences of the CAN’s Data Science for Social Impact Summer Program. With the knowledge that data science transcends the boundaries of mere programming, I’m prepared to weave narratives that drive positive change. The journey continues, and I’m excited to be a part of a movement that seeks to amplify social impact through the art and science of data.