Alumni Profile

Alumni profile: Jody Schechter, S.M. ’14

Using big data to answer million-dollar questions

Jody Schechter

In pharmaceutical companies’ race to find treatments for deadly diseases, running an effective clinical trial is of paramount importance. But with literally millions of hospitals to choose from, how can a firm identify the ones that provide the best environment for success?

The answer lies in the data, says Jody Schechter, a data scientist at QuantumBlack. She and her team used data to build an algorithmic model that predicts how quickly a new clinical trial will enroll participants at different hospitals across the country.

It’s one of many projects she’s worked on at the data science consultancy. She finds the work to be continually exciting because it spans so many different industries.

“We deal with a lot of interesting data science questions,” she said. “But the biggest challenge is helping organizations see the value in analytics and working with them from top to bottom to advance their understanding of data in their decisions.”

Schechter didn’t understand how valuable data could be until she started exploring economics at the University of Michigan.

As a math-minded high school student, she had helped raise money to build a school in Mali through the Building with Books program. That experience piqued her interest in development economics, which she focused on during an undergraduate thesis project on the Model Cities program of the 1960s. The initiative poured federal funding into very specific areas of a few American cities.

Jody Schechter

To study the program’s impacts, Schechter found herself interpreting and manipulating information from massive census data sets, and quickly discovered she had a knack and a passion for programming and working with data files.

“For me, the reason coding is fun is that you are always working with a puzzle. There is always something you are beating your head against a wall about, and then you figure it out and you get this joy,” she said.

Seeking to apply her data science skills to even thornier questions, Schechter began a career as a data miner at market research firm Compete, Inc.

There she used data to help companies understand online consumer behavior. As she delved deeper into the world of data science, Schechter saw how some novel tools and techniques could be even more useful in a corporate setting, and decided to enroll in the computational science and engineering master’s program, offered by the Institute for Applied Computational Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to expand her skills.

At Harvard, she was able to modernize her skill set by learning new techniques and programming languages, like Python. During the intense, eight-month program, she also enjoyed bonding with classmates who had very different backgrounds and hearing their unique perspectives on the field of data science.

Jody Schechter

After earning her master’s degree, Schechter spent two years as a data scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton and a year at Akamai Technologies before joining QuantumBlack.

Working with clients in many industries, many of whom have limited experience with data or advanced analytics, can be very challenging.

“To be effective, you have to be able to talk to people, present effectively, and be careful with how you communicate with clients,” she said. “You have to make sure you are telling the right story with their data.”

One of the things Schechter enjoys the most about her work is staying on top of constantly changing technology. She and her colleagues often spend time testing new tools, or working with new algorithms or new neural networks, in an effort to provide better answers for clients.

And with even larger volumes of data being more rapidly collected every day, Schechter doesn’t expect to run out of fascinating questions to answer any time soon.

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