Forging a community of the unapologetically curious

After spending five years in the health care industry, where she applied her knowledge of machine learning to the broad field, Dr. Abigail Flower realized she missed teaching.

“I was very drawn to doing something to give back,” she says. “I love interacting with students.” 

She returned to the University in 2013 and soon connected with the brand-new Data Science Institute (DSI), giving her an opportunity to nurture students in a field she loved.

Abigail quickly became involved in helping build and frame the DSI, which required all of the energy, excitement—and hard work—of founding a startup. “It’s really fun to think about our first year and getting through it and how fresh everything was,” she says. “Nobody knew what to expect.” 

“We were prepared to teach the material that we knew needed to be taught, but we didn’t realize how special the interactions would be with the students and that we’d have this esprit de corps,” she says. “That hasn’t left us.”

The youthful fervor of the new program, combined with the intensity of its compressed duration, also contributes to this strong sense of community that Abigail feels at the DSI. 

“There’s a special bond between the cohort and the faculty,” she says. “We want to get them through the program; we want to see them succeed. There’s just this natural support system that forms.” 

That bond is something that she thinks sets the DSI apart when compared with other similar programs. “The student experience at some programs can be more isolated. Here, the student experience is necessarily bonded with all of the other students,” she says. “And I think our faculty enjoys a special relationship with the students, where there’s an appropriate casualness. They want to strike up a conversation, and you know a little bit more about what’s going on in their lives.”

Abigail prizes her time with the Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) students at the DSI. “They are unapologetically curious, which is really fun,” she says. 

“I think the key to being a good data scientist is not just someone who is technically rigorous but someone who is creative.”

This element of curiosity is a trait that Abigail sees as the mark of a strong data scientist. “I think the key to being a good data scientist is not just someone who is technically rigorous but someone who is creative. That’s a cornerstone of being a good data scientist,” she says. “Be creative, and be prepared to be creative.”

Students stay in touch with Abigail after graduation, whether writing to give her updates about their professional lives or requesting her support in the form of reference letters. Sometimes, they write to say they got their dream jobs. 

“Right out of school, you don’t necessarily get your dream job,” she says. “You get a job. Some land their dream jobs right away, but sometimes it takes an extra year or two to get that job, and when they do, they write me, and it’s so exciting to hear from them. It’s super rewarding.”

The strong connection she builds with MSDS students is a feature that Abigail particularly treasures about her involvement with the DSI. 

“When we have graduation, I feel filled up every year because I know what they’ve gone through, and I feel like I’ve been with them the whole way,” she says.

“It’s different than it is with other students necessarily. It’s this intense time that we all spend together, and the next thing you know, they’re graduating, and you have to say goodbye after just one year. It’s a special group. This is a very special place.”