Students discover how alumni utilize data science on Seattle spring break trip

Apr. 2, 2019 — During the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Career Community trek to Seattle March 17-22, the 15 Grinnell College students on the trip met data scientists who said their job didn’t theoretically exist.

“It became our group’s running joke how many times we heard the phrase ‘I’m not a data scientist, but…,’” says Sarah Barks, director of the STEM Career Community. “Students quickly learned that data science isn’t necessary a job. Rather it’s a set of skills used in a lot of different settings.”

Joel Tibbetts ’20, a physics major from Saint Paul, says one of the most compelling parts of the trip was seeing how companies in various fields use similar data science techniques to solve very different problems.

“For instance, Boeing is using data science to predict how certain parts on an airplane might fail, thus allowing for better schedules of maintenance, and ultimately safer flying,” he says. “While NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is using data science to develop a mapping system for where fish are in the ocean.”

The students are part of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service’s (CLS) STEM Career Community. Through the CLS’ seven career communities, students have access to specialized advising, tailored programming, and experiential learning opportunities. Interactions with peers, alumni, and recruiters are designed to help students further explore, clarify, and pursue meaningful post-graduate pathways.

Several donors have contributed toward the career communities. In 2018, Steve Elkes ’83 gave a $50,000 gift to Grinnell for data sciences professional connection. The president of Surface Travel, Elkes’ interest in funding this initiative stemmed from his own work in the technology industry. The gift has been used for externships, speakers during I Love Data Week in February, and the trek to Seattle.

Barks says the students on the trip had a range of interests in careers. Some aspired for jobs that worked with data science, while others were still exploring career paths with STEM fields. Tibbetts, for instance, has a main interest in engineering and wanted to see how data science connected to that.

Prajita Niraula ’21, a computer science major from Nepal, says she always knew she want to play around with data in some capacity. The trip only added more fuel to the fire.

“This trip helped me to learn that some parts in the industry have more room for creativity and flexibility compared to the others,” she says. “The discussion with alumni definitely helped me realize that a liberal arts education is important to be a good data scientist considering how interdisciplinary data science is. I also realized that data science truly gives one the freedom to contribute toward various aspects of society.”

The tour began with a trip to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA. Mark Zimmermann ’86 hosted the group and was accompanied by scientists who are using data analytic technique to do work exploring fish populations and looking at aspects of ocean and climate science.

Mark Zimmermann ’86, right, a research fishery biologist, puts on a wetsuit for students during their tour of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Mark Zimmermann ’86, right, a research fishery biologist, puts on a wetsuit for students during their tour of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Next was a visit to Tableau Software with Nathan Mannheimer ’12. The following day Sean Warlick ’08 gave a tour and presentation at Boeing Field. The student then visited Amazon headquarters, where Mira Hall ’16 put together a panel discussion, and toured Amazon Go and Amazon Spheres. Students also met five other Grinnell alums working at Amazon: Tolu Alabi ‘13, Peter Aldrich ’15, David Chang ’18, Aditi Roy ’13, and Zachary Segall ’18. The day concluded with an alumni network reception at the Pacific Science Center.

“Sometimes it can be tough for students to put themselves out there and talk to people they don’t know,” Barks says. “But they dove right in. We had to drag them away at the end of the evening. There was lots of contact information being exchanged, lots of great questions being asked, and the Pacific Science Center was a fun venue to have it at.”

Day three of the trip was spent at Microsoft. Jun Taek Lee ’18 and colleagues hosted a panel discussion, Q&A, tour of the Microsoft museum, and lunch in Microsoft Commons.

The trek shifted to a public data focus on March 21 with a visit to City of Seattle Open Data Program and Tyler Technologies with Jeff Green ’84. Tyler Technologies built the open data platform.

Students on the STEM trek spring break trip gather for a group photo with the Seattle skyline and Space Needle in the background.
Students on the STEM trek spring break trip gather for a group photo with the Seattle skyline and Space Needle in the background.

“It was fascinating how the city uses open data for the public good,” Barks says. “A lot of the students felt at home with projects that promote social good, and this type of work felt very Grinnellian.”

Green said he really enjoyed meeting the students.

“I was impressed by the depth and thoughtfulness of the questions they asked, which is what I would have expected from Grinnell students, but it was nevertheless gratifying to have my assumptions that Grinnell students are curious, smart, and driven be validated,” he says. “I had several colleagues participate in the visit and all of them were equally impressed by the group.  We are looking forward to possibly bringing on Grinnell students as interns and employees in the future through the connections we made during their trek to Seattle.”

The Seattle trip wasn’t the only student trip held during spring break. The Education Professions Career Community visited Boston on March 17-22. Students met with a number of alumni to discuss educational careers.

Meanwhile, The Rosenfield Program and the Government and Social Service Career Community went on an International Affairs Study Tour in Washington D.C. The group visited government agencies, private firms, international organizations, think tanks, and a foreign embassy.

The tour also included an alumni Back to the Classroom component. On Friday, alumni had a discussion about “Is Democracy Dying” with the Professor Barbara Trish and the 16 students on the tour.

“It is amazing how we have life-changing opportunities to shape our professional life,” Niraula says. “This trip has definitely helped me to realize the facets of me that I would not have been able to realize without the exposure I got during the trip. Therefore, I am immensely thankful to the donor for allowing us to have this exposure, and I hope I can also be such a valuable resource to future Grinnellians.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Learn more about Grinnell’s seven Career Communities. For additional details about the STEM Career Community, contact director Sarah Barks at or 641-269-4940.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.