STEM fields are essential to our way of life, our growth and our future. They will wholeheartedly be responsible for evolving our world. Technology, in particular, has already helped us achieve so many things and reach new heights.
But not everyone recognizes the potential of STEM and may end up in other fields by default. Sarah Boukhris-Escandon, Ph.D., P.E., found that early exposure was the key to her interest in STEM.
“I had exposure at a young age, my dad being in the field and my mom taking the time to take me to University of Texas in Austin,” Sarah, the first female lead data scientist at a Fortune 500 financial services company, recalls. “They had a bunch of activities for women in engineering and tech. She was always taking me to these events because I loved them. I think getting that early exposure helped me get into tech as a long-term career because I realized my passion.”
Sarah would like to see others introduce STEM to girls very early, showing that they can love it without the stigma.
“In my college class there were 70 people and less than 10 were women,” she says. “I always looked around thinking, ‘Yep, I’m the only girl,’ or, ‘Hey, I’m not the only girl in here.’ There’s a stigma and it’s intimidating. Giving girls that confidence earlier on, identifying that passion and interest, then they know they can do it. That’s really important.”
As lead data scientist, Sarah’s role is to develop predictive models using machine learning and AI, covering the whole spectrum of its lifecycle.
“I work with business partners to solve the problem statement,” she says. “That’s one challenging part because I have to understand what the business needs. It might not necessarily be ML or PM, they may just need descriptive statistics.”
Thus, her initial phase normally involves her understanding of the problem and what needs to be solved.
“I do all the data exploration,” she continues. “Then I develop the model, so I need strong math, statistics, coding, and computer science skills. Also, I have to share the knowledge and provide deliverables to the company, anywhere from presentation to predictive models in production. The last part is the documentation involved: assessing risk, having my work scrutinized by a model validation team, and having to be confident enough for my work to go through the wringer.”
Last but not least she implements the model, working closely with the IT team to ensure it is deployed and put into production.
“I don’t have people reporting to me, but I try my best to act like a leader in the analytics space,” Sarah says. “I try to keep the community together with meet-ups and lunches, especially amongst women. I started a ‘Women in Data Science and Engineering group,’ and we have lunches and get the community together and meet new people. It’s important to have that type of connection, especially at big companies.”
Sarah’s career path began after she decided to study mechanical engineering in college. But there was a time when she had thought about going to medical school. She enjoyed participating in all of the pre-med prerequisites and started volunteering in a hospital during her undergrad studies.
“But my heart wasn’t really there,” she says. “What helped me make my decision was that my MCAT score wasn’t super high. I was going to take it again to have a better chance to get into a Texas med school, but instead of waiting around for a year I decided to get a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. When I went to go write my check, I found out that a professor I was working for was going to pay for my tuition and give me a monthly stipend. I had no idea.”
She then asked if he would pay for her to get her PhD.
“And he said, ‘Yeah, and you’ll get a monthly raise in your stipend,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Yep, sign me up, I won’t go to medical school, let’s get a PhD.’”
Sarah spoke fondly of her mentors, including Marty Ellingsworth, a former colleague who joined Celent’s insurance practice as senior analyst last year.
“One of the things that I try to do is get mentors from different fields,” she says. “Marty is always looking out for me and is a great resource for me to go to with any conflict resolution questions. It’s always nice to get his perspective.”
She also turns to different women throughout the industry for their perspective and support.
“I have had situations where I’m in meetings and I feel I’m not being listened to or being heard,” Sarah explains. “There’s always that situation where I say an idea, no one listens, and the guy next to me repeats it and everyone’s like, ‘That’s the greatest idea I’ve ever heard.’ It happens. Dealing with those situations with class and patience, it’s nice to have a mentor that knows and shares with you how they got past it. Maybe their way of moving past it doesn’t work for everyone, but at least hearing their idea helps you form what works for you.”