Alumnus Dan Lewis ’10 returned to Saint Michael’s College on Friday, March 2 for the Department of Math and Statistics Colloquium. His presentation, “Data Science in Unexpected Places,” focused on the role of data science in the marketing field.
In the large photo above the headline, Professor George Ashline of the Saint Michael's College mathematics faculty welcomes guest speaker Dan Lewis '10 for his Friday Colloquium talk on "Data Science in unexpeced places. Directly above, Dan offers more "insights." Other photos show mathematics student Rebecca Rouleau making an introduction, audience members focused on the message, and Dan emphasizing a point. (photos by Danielle Joubert '20)
Faculty and students majoring in the “STEM” disciplines -- the acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – made up most of the audience of nearly 50 in the large Cheray 101 lecture hall.
There was no lack of nostalgia or good-natured ribbing from professors eager to joke at their former student’s expense. Lewis even shared some photos from his own time at Saint Mike’s, tangled in a throng of smiling seniors on P-day and carrying the math flag during his Commencement procession. But after an introduction from Professor George Ashline of the Mathematics Department and Rebecca Rouleau, president of the math honor society Pi Mu Epsilon, the crowd quickly settled down to take notes for the real discussion. The goal of the afternoon was to equip students with the industry insight they need to take advantage of emergent careers in data.
Lewis earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Saint Michael’s where, as he told listeners, he completed many challenging math projects. The biggest and most influential for him was a senior project that studied the statistical likelihood of rural river overflows of the Winooski River by leveraging a professor’s work on mixed distribution modeling. “This was the first time that I said to myself, ‘this is how we can use technical skills to find out useful information.’ I began to understand the power of data,” he said.
After obtaining his master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, he joined MRM//MCCann, a world marketing agency, as a senior data strategist. During Friday’s presentation he spoke about the surprising and underrated role of data in the marketing field today. His central theme, and Math Department’s reason for inviting him, was that, like Lewis, STEM students at Saint Mike’s may find themselves uniquely poised in the future as valuable assets to marketers worldwide. With the college’s new Major and Minor in Data Studies, the possibilities it provides are endless for students who want to hit the ground running in this brave new world dominated by numbers, he said.
“Clearly, there’s a demand for data science professionals and people who want these careers,” Lewis said after noting that the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with “deep analytic skills” in 2018. “This is a great area to be thinking about,” he said.
But what makes someone a data scientist?
When it comes to data experts, Lewis said, employers seek a unique combination of “soft skills” such as communication or public speaking, and “hard skills,” which are more solidly rooted in a technical education. “Employers are looking for people who are creative problem solvers … seeking good story-tellers who can make sense of numbers,” he said. “Beyond just being good problem solvers, story tellers need to have influence over business leaders… These are facts and data that they should be using to make data-driven business decisions.” Lewis listed data mining, machine learning, statistical modeling, and cluster modeling as hard skills that could also be sought by employers, as well as tool-based skills such as cloud computing and using programs like Hadoop and Python.
Overall, students who hope to break into the marketing field with a statistical/mathematical background should be prepared to translate data to real business outcomes and to tell a story that companies can connect with, he said. Data is the ultimate resource for businesses that want to understand their relationship between their brand and the consumer. Lewis may have demonstrated this best in sharing the mission statement for MRM//McCann: “We help brands foster meaningful, lasting relationships with people.” Such a relationship starts with a narrative, which starts with numbers. “To get meaningful relationships, (we) have to start with meaningful data structured in the right way,” he said.
Lewis encouraged students to seek out these skills and to be optimistic about the solid background that their STEM education at Saint Mike’s will provide, but also to realize that the industry can’t expect perfection. He referred to the applicant with all of the skills he listed as a sort of “unicorn” for their rarity and unlikelihood in the field. “Nobody can hit all categories,” he said. Employers build their best teams out of employees with diverse skills. He encouraged students to market themselves as a “subject matter expert.” Being an expert in multiple areas may be the better option than trying to gain minimal knowledge in all of them. In addition, Lewis encouraged students to take on an internship. Summer research at Saint Mike’s, he noted, such as his own research with Jo Ellis-Monaghan of the Mathematics faculty, is also a great option.
Perhaps above all else, Lewis stressed that students looking to break into the field should show confidence in the skills they already have, along with the drive and ambition to learn those that they don’t. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable... Be able to come up with things on your own without a lot of structure,” he said.
Judging by conversations and responses at a post-talk reception, an important message was delivered and enthusiastically received at this year’s colloquium: With the proper dedication, STEM majors like Dan Lewis at Saint Michael’s College can find a very bright future in the global marketing field.