Data scientist Dr Lisa Chen returns to the Department of Statistics

17 July 2019
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When Dr Lisa Chen was doing her PhD with the Department of Statistics between 2008 and 2012, she hardly ever heard the terms ‘data science’ and ‘data scientist’ – and didn’t apply them to herself.

“I was introducing myself as an applied statistician with a computer science degree,” she recalls. “Sometimes, I also mentioned that I specialised in operations research, but that usually switched people off very quickly!”

Things changed rapidly after 2012, she says, when Harvard Business Review announced that ‘data scientist’ was the sexiest job of the 21st century. Since then, she says, data science and analytics have become so important in both business and government that the field has grown into a science of its own.

This year, demand for data-savvy graduates saw the Faculty of Science launch a BSc and an MSc in Data Science, and these developments encouraged Lisa to return to her alma mater as a Professional Teaching Fellow.

“I want to share my knowledge and experience in this very exciting field,” says Lisa. “With businesses collecting, processing and storing more and more data, they need more well-trained data scientists to unlock the value from these gold mines.”

Before starting her university role, Lisa was the Chief Data Scientist at Harmonic Analytics, a major player in New Zealand and Asia-Pacific data science.  

Lisa was born in southern China. She came to New Zealand in 2001, completing her BSc (Hons) in Statistics and Computer Science at the University of Auckland. Her PhD studied optimal control and strategic planning for transportation networks.

During her study, Lisa worked part-time for Harmonic, which has a long-standing association with the Department of Statistics, then joined the company full-time after completion. During her 11-year association with the company, she worked on projects in fields as diverse as telecommunication, energy, banking and aviation, specialising in advanced statistical modelling, machine learning and operations research.

Lisa, says that people transferring to academia from industry can provide a fresh perspective on the technical and personal skills required.

“Data science is ultimately a very technical but practical discipline,” she explains. “Some of the soft skills, such as project management and consulting, are also important for students to learn.”

Lisa is also looking forward to engaging with students again, something she thoroughly enjoys. Being back in academia will also give her the chance to reflect on some of her commercial projects and investigate some of the technical aspects that commercial constraints such as client budgets and deadlines didn’t allow. 

Lisa will also be encouraging young women to aim high in data science. She feels that women often have innate communication skills that afford a district advantage in business. “Data scientists often need to deal with various people with less technical knowledge but a strong business focus, like project managers and stakeholders,” she says. “I think women often have better empathy and the communication skills required to participate in and facilitate those conversations.”

Read about Data Science at the University of Auckland