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Playing with Big Data: Jessica Kirkpatrick joins Real Scientists – Real Scientists

Playing with Big Data: Jessica Kirkpatrick joins Real Scientists

Massive thanks to Annie Feighery and her crew at mwater for the awesome curation of the past week. It’s been a delight to tackle the enormous topic of data management at Real Scientists, and still more wonderful to see see scientists take their passion for changing the world to create something as free, open and truly unique as mwater. 

Keeping in the theme of Big Data, with the increasing amounts of data collecting taking place both in and out of the scientific world – whether  from telescopes like NASA’s Kepler Mission, to genomics data and proteomic data; there’s a great need for better analysis of this data, more expertise and better management controls. These are now concerns at the community and national level, and they are also the concerns of data scientist Dr Jessica Kirkpatrick (@berkeleyjess), our next curator at Real Scientists . Jessica started out as an astronomer and ended up as a data scientist on her way to changing the world at an education start-up, Chegg.  We asked Jessica our usual set of questions, and here’s her story, in her own words.



I have always been fascinated with understanding how things work. My favorite subjects in school were math and science. But I really knew I wanted to become a scientist when I took high school physics. It was the perfect combination of problem-solving and math. It felt like solving puzzles all day, I just absolutely loved it (and still do).

During my freshman year at Occidental College, I learned about dark matter and got involved with a professor who was doing astrophysics research. I became really fascinated with the make up of the universe, how it was created, and what it’s eventual fate would be. I continued to study astrophysics for the next twelve years, and my PhD at Berkeley involved the study of dark energy.

I went directly from receiving my PhD in astrophysics to getting a data science position at Microsoft / Yammer. After a year at Yammer, I was recruited by education start-up InstaEDU to start their data science team. Eight months later InstaEDU was acquired by Chegg, and now I am a Senior Data Scientist for Chegg.

jess-daniel-whiteboarding (1)

There were a lot of factors that motivated my change from academia to the tech industry:

New Challenge – I had been doing astrophysics research for 12 years and I was ready for a new challenge. I felt like I would learn and grow more by switching to the tech industry than I would by staying in academia.

State of the field – Because data science is a newer field than astronomy I have the opportunity to make a bigger impact and do more innovative work. I am excited to be one of the pioneers in this field.

Work environment – My research work was isolating and solitary. I wanted to work in an environment that was more collaborative and team based. I also found the pace of academic research to be a little slow. Because most work is done for the purpose of publication, the level of rigor and depth of analysis is quite intense. This means projects can go for months or even years. In the tech industry projects tend to be fast-paced and less in-depth. This is a better fit for my personality and work style.

Location – I wanted to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area where my family lives. There are lots of tech jobs here, but very few astrophysics positions.


I spend most of my time trying to answer questions for other people within my company using our data. I answer questions like: How can me make the experience better for our users? What is most important in retaining users? What is working well / not well?

I answer these questions by doing statistical analysis of the data we collect using a programming language called python. I create visualizations of the data that can be shared with others in the company and investors. My day involves pulling data from our database, reducing it, analyzing it, and communicating these results to others within the company. I also build tools and visualizations so people in the company can monitor how the site is doing automatically.


Data science is a rapidly growing industry. As more and more of our lives and interactions become digitally captured, using data to improve experiences and outcomes will become more and more prevalent.

I think the lay public has a lot of concerns about privacy and the way their data is being used. They also probably have misconceptions about what data scientists do and don’t do with their data. I’d like to help make this more transparent.


I care a lot about issues of equity and inclusion in STEM.
I blog about these issues for the Women in Astronomy Blog (http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/) as part of my membership of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy. I also run several online communities which focus on these issues.


I run, bike, swim, salsa dance, cook, and garden. I am learning American Sign Language online through my company’s tutoring services Chegg Tutors. I love being outdoors so my ideal day off would involve some sort of outdoor activity (hiking, backpacking, camping, going to the beach) with friends, followed by cooking a meal together and playing games.


Please welcome Jessica to Real Scientists!

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