What Makes a Great Data Scientist? Curiosity.

A liberal arts approach to data helps solve business problems

Mufaddal Ali ’21
Mufaddal Ali ’21
By Kayla Voigt ’14Photography by Gabe Souza
October 20, 2021

Jamie Warner ’09 was used to hiring entry-level candidates—those with Ph.D.s, that is. As vice president of data science at Lincoln Financial Group in Boston, she’s built an expert team that now includes its first junior member: Mufaddal Ali ’21.

“I hadn’t really looked at undergrads as potential hires in this field. I couldn’t help but notice that the level of conversations and the excitement were at a level I wouldn’t expect for graduating seniors,” said Warner. “What we really do is we solve business problems with data, and that means anything from an easy SQL query to a complex Tableau dashboard and everything in between.”

For Ali, that means supporting the team by finding, cleaning, organizing, and visualizing different data sources—and asking lots of questions. “I really appreciate the level of faith and support that everyone has in me,” he said. “It was a new experience, starting a job completely online. My team is amazing, and I’m learning so much.”

A Standout DataFest Performance 

Warner created the role for Ali—their first undergraduate-level hire—after judging this year’s DataFest competition in the spring, hosted by the American Statistical Association. Teams of 2-5 students from Colby, Bates, Bowdoin, and the College of Atlantic had only 72 hours to make sense of a massive real-world dataset around non-medical use of prescription drugs. 

Ali organized the event as president of Q Data Science Group—the first data science club on campus. “The goal for me was to work with real-world problems and to give [students] an idea of what industry data looks like and how that aligns with business goals,” he said. “I put all of my effort into the competition, and I’m so lucky Jamie was there to see it. If the right person sees you putting your everything into something that matters to you, and how it brings you joy, it becomes a huge opportunity.”

Focusing on business outcomes is what impressed Warner the most. “I just saw that he was very curious. He wanted to know more, and that’s someone that’s easy to educate,” she said.

“That extreme curiosity—always asking questions, figuring out why things work, getting to know business leaders—it’s pretty hard to find.”

Jamie Warner ’09

That curiosity is what encouraged Ali to take coursework across the liberal arts. The computer science major dabbled in psychology, statistics, and religion, among other electives. “Computer science is often associated with software development, but it’s so much more than that,” he said. “The importance of a liberal arts education is about how you mix all of your courses together and interact with them in the outside world. A major is only so much of what you’re going to do.”

Cultivating Curiosity Across Curricula

That’s exactly why Colby integrates data science into curricula across campus, from humanities to the natural sciences, through the McVey Data Science Initiative. Acquiring critical skills in predictive analytics, AI and machine learning, and data visualization gives students tools to look at problems from every angle.

For Warner, hiring Ali opened the door to expanding her team with more junior-level data scientists. “We’ve shifted our hiring strategy to include more junior roles because it’s become really clear there’s an opportunity we hadn’t explored before,” she said. “Colby students have a unique perspective where they just dive in. [They] learn how to program, but [they’re] also really excited about the storyline. That’s a perfect combination.”

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