l-r: Arushi Jain, Darshita Chaturvedi, Susan Conover, and Zara Perumal at WiDS Cambridge 2023, Photo by Jade Chongsathapornpong

Women in the room

March 29, 2023

WiDS Cambridge 2023 Women in Entrepreneurship Panel.
l-r: Arushi Jain, moderator and Data & Applied Scientist, Microsoft; Darshita Chaturvedi, co-founder & CEO Atri Labs; Susan Conover, co-founder and CEO, Piction Health; Zara Perumal, Co-Founder and CTO, Overwatch Data
Photo by Jade Chongsathapornpong

By: Kaitlin Provencher

When Bridget Mullen started her undergraduate career in the 90s, she planned to graduate with degrees in art and computer science. Looking around her classrooms, however, she decided to leave her love of math and computer science behind.

“There were just very few women,” Mullen recalls. “I was in classes of two to three women per hundred men, and it felt like that was what my office life would be like if I decided this was going to be my career.”

On Friday, March 10, after decades of a dedicated career in art, Mullen entered the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, fueling her recently rediscovered love for math with the surprising new reality that she was no longer the only woman in the room. 

Mullen was joined by more than 200 people in-person and over 80 virtual attendees at the seventh annual Women in Data Science (WiDS) Cambridge conference, a one-day conference featuring an all-female lineup of academic and industry speakers, panelists, and poster sessions focused on the latest data science-related research. 

Begun as a standalone one-day technical conference at Stanford University in 2015, WiDS is now a global movement that includes a number of worldwide initiatives. WiDS Cambridge, a collaboration between the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), Harvard, and Microsoft Research New England is just one of 200 regional events worldwide.

“I was very inspired to see the breadth of topics that were presented by the students and just seeing a future generation of thinkers,” says Dr. Samar Deen, data and applied scientist for Microsoft and a 2023 panelist for the conference’s discussion on Data, Climate Change and Global Health. “These young women are extremely motivated. They’re here to learn, they’re here to expand their network, and they really want to be actively involved in data science as a career.”

Deen says the start of her career was not unlike Mullen’s, beginning as an undergraduate in computer science 20 years ago and then pivoting when the pool of women in tech proved to be nearly non-existent.

“I was in Pakistan and when I had my first internship, my male peers were given really important tasks and responsibilities at an IT startup and I was told to just do whatever I wanted,” Deen said. “I learned nothing, and then went into the environment sector because I didn’t feel like there was a space for me in tech.”

As time went on, Deen found that her work was constantly circling the need to understand and analyze data.

“I was exposed to so much data, but I didn’t feel comfortable with my qualifications knowing how to leverage this data for more analytical problem-solving,” Deen says. “That’s when I went and did a PhD to learn how to understand data, build better models, and use them to solve problems.”

Finding a path back

For Mullen, there were two major drivers that rekindled her love of math and her path to data science: her daughter, and the IDSS MicroMasters® Program in Statistics and Data Science (SDS).

Mullen says she was homeschooling her daughter, a fourth-grader who shares her passion for math, when she realized how much she was missing.

“She wanted to start learning calculus, and as I was teaching her I thought oh my gosh, I forgot how much I love math,” she says. “Data science has been the perfect combination of math, computer science, and representation – this is exactly what I would have done if it was available in the 90s.”

Mullen used MIT’s open courseware to brush up on her calculus, linear algebra, and Python before beginning the MicroMasters SDS in August of 2022. 

“I am so thankful for the program – there is no way I could have gone back to school without it,” Mullen says. “I live in Miami, I am a mom of three, and I have a small business, so even if there was something local, I couldn’t do it. With the program, I am able to work late at night and during odd hours while still living my life.” 

Creating the space and opening doors

“We want to see more women leading in this field,” said Milind Kopikare, President of Great Learning, North America, an IDSS Alliance member and WiDS Cambridge sponsor. IDSS offers several online programs in collaboration with Great Learning, including the Data Science and Machine Learning (DSML) course. “Our goal is to get 50% women in the DSML program. We’re also interested in helping people bridge the gap between having AI knowledge and applying it to their business. That’s essential for anyone looking to lead AI in their company and rise up the corporate ladder.”

One significant area of gender discrepancy is fundraising, argues Susan Conover, a WiDS Cambridge panelist on Women in Entrepreneurship. “Women are evaluated on their prior experience or success and men are evaluated on their future potential,” says Conover, who is also a graduate of MIT’s System Design and Management program and co-founder and CEO of Piction Health. “It’s a mismatch because startup land is nearly all based on future potential.”

In terms of future potential, Conover says many venture capitalists often miss the mark when they underestimate the ideas of women and minorities because they have a way of seeing problems within their own group better than anyone.

“Women’s health is notoriously underfunded,” she says. “The advice I would give to women in data science is: know your ability to see what those in the majority don’t.”

Anna Han, a WiDS Cambridge attendee, earned the MicroMasters credential while maintaining her career as an equity strategist on Wall Street. Han says one of the greatest values the WiDS Cambridge conference brings to the field is showcasing the wide application of data science across fields and disciplines. 

“I think it kind of empowers you to realize – I’m using my academic data science training in finance now, but it is so widely applicable that it really can touch all industries,” Han says. “You can talk to people cross-department or cross-industry and still be able to communicate and understand them. Whether it’s deep academic research or groundbreaking biotech discoveries, we can all still talk the same language and create a common ground for us to gather on and nerd out.”

For Jaya Kolluri, a member of that future generation of thinkers and practitioners in the field, the advice on offer at WiDS Cambridge was invaluable. Kolluri is a high school junior who presented a poster on her research using machine learning to reduce infant mortality rates.

“My interest is looking at healthcare through the lens of statistics and data science,” she says. “WiDS Cambridge gives me an opportunity to expand my knowledge and meet experts in this field.”

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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