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- Has two kids and is excited they're interested in math and science.
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About the Women in Data Science Series
A data scientist knows that some of the richest and most intriguing stories can be found in a data set.
To highlight the stories behind the women in data science at Booz Allen, we created an editorial series on the individuals who are solving today’s big challenges and redefining, in their own unique ways, what it means to be a data scientist.
Explore the profiles and get personal with women from a variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and experience who are part of our growing team of data scientists.
A piece of meaningful encouragement can change the course of your life. Just ask Booz Allen Analytics Leader Lauren Neal. “If you have someone in your life who inspires you or believes in you, that’s sometimes all you need,” says Lauren.
As a college student studying electrical engineering, Lauren had never considered getting a Ph.D. However, one conversation with a professor changed the course of her life. It set her on a path to pursue a doctoral program in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University where she studied how the brain processes sensory information. “I never thought I would get a Ph.D.,” Lauren says. “It’s been this great journey where one thing has followed another.”
As Lauren progressed through her academic career, she started to see the value of using data to solve problems. When she started working at Booz Allen after her fellowship, “I didn’t think of myself as a data scientist at the time. I don’t even think that term existed,” she says. What she did know was that a career in consulting would give her “a new way to solve a lot of problems” that wouldn’t tie her down to one specific skill set. In all her projects, “I really wanted to get my hands on the data,” Lauren says.
Lauren has impressively seized the power of data at Booz Allen. She leads the firm’s innovative health analytics work and helps federal health agencies build artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled platforms. She oversees the development of human learning solutions that help clients make decisions impacting biomedical research or clinical care. Lauren also leads Booz Allen’s internal AI investment, which enhances capabilities the firm provides to clients. She's also the founder of the Women in Data Science (WiDS) group at Booz Allen.
How did WiDS start? Unsurprisingly, with some convincing data. Lauren never thought she’d create a group of this sort, but then she pulled census data showing the number of women in STEM and trends over time. It was 2016, and Lauren surely thought women were increasingly entering the field. Depressingly, the trend line was decreasing over time.
Lauren presented this data at a networking event, and people were overwhelmingly interested in ways to support women in data careers. “Once I realized people cared, I started asking women what they would find valuable in this type of group,” Lauren explains. The first WiDS event? Leadership lunches to meet with analytics leaders in a fun, laidback atmosphere. The most committed attendees ended up forming the first WiDS executive committee.
The group has grown into something Lauren could never have imagined. “I probably learn more from them than they learn from me,” she says. “As a leader, you spend a lot of time building your business or writing proposals. It’s refreshing to be around people who are thinking beyond typical business metrics. They’re thinking about diversity and inclusion, how to engage with communities, and how to keep people inspired about our work. They bring a lot of fun to everything we do, and they're good at reminding me that there are other ways to solve problems than just generating business,” Lauren continues.
“We give women the chance to be leaders.”
One standout characteristic of WiDS is that “everyone is willing to teach,” which is important for a field where women are still few and far between in upper management roles. “One of the most important things we do is give women the chance to be leaders and think ‘yeah, I can do this,’” Lauren says. “When we talk about education, it’s not just about being smart and having all the skills you need. It’s about not being afraid to share your technical skills with others by attending conferences, teaching others, and increasing representation of women doing this kind of work,” Lauren adds. Like she experienced in college, inspiration or encouragement from a single person could set off a domino effect.
Her tips for aspiring data scientists? Get out of your comfort zone. “Don’t be afraid to ask people for help or advice. Don’t be afraid to take on a project. Sometimes you have to take a little bit of a leap even if you’re not an expert in it, and that’s OK. If anything, it'll accelerate your progression.”
Lauren feels her greatest sense of accomplishment when she persists through tough challenges. Now, surrounded by a community of data scientists who have a passion for solving some of the world’s biggest problems, it’s certain that she’ll never face a challenge alone.