“If you say some vaccine is x percent effective, what does that really mean?” asked Audrey Dickinson (M.S. Data Analytics ’21). The Oregon State alumna went back to school to learn how to answer just such important questions.
Dickinson was working as an engineer at HP in Corvallis when she realized that a better understanding of data would make her work even more impactful. The value of data for industry really stood out to her, she said. Oregon State’s two-year online Graduate Program in Data Analytics gave her the flexibility to earn her credentials while still working full-time at HP.
“There are a lot of great professors and the coursework was very valuable. Right away, I applied things that I was learning to my real-life job,” she said. Professor Charlotte Wickham in the statistics department was particularly engaging: “she has a data visualization course which has helped me immensely in communicating data analytics,” said Dickinson.
Ensuring ethical use of data
Since graduating from the Data Analytics program, Dickinson traded her engineering role for that of a Driver Analyst at HP, looking at key data points driving business metrics. In today’s unpredictable world, the value of professionals who can accurately interpret data and forecast results is greater than ever.
Data analytics is “very powerful,” Dickinson said, but understanding its limitations is also important. Equally vital are the ethical use of data and integrity in how we convey supposedly cut-and-dry scientific figures to a public not initiated into the scientific process.
“We talk a bit about that in our data science courses,” Dickinson said. “If you report something in a very scientific manner, how is that interpreted by the general public?” Although science is often thought of as objective, how we communicate it and present data has a big effect on how it is perceived.
“If someone comes to you and they say, ‘I can predict this with a certain amount of accuracy,’ what does that truly mean? And how much confidence can you really stake in their results? I think that’s powerful to know and understand,” she said.
Finding identity in STEM
Before delving into data analytics for her master’s, Dickinson earned her B.S. in chemical engineering at Oregon State. Although a minority as a woman in many of her classes, she “always had a lot of support” in her program, finding community in Oregon State’s engineering sorority Phi Sigma Rho and inspiration in the excellent mentoring and involvement of professors like Willie E. 'Skip' Rochefort. “He’s a very unique person,” she said, always participating in events like Discovery Days to get students more involved.
Dickinson knows the value of getting hands-on with math and science in early education, because her mom was a middle-school math teacher growing up. STEM was accessible and inviting to Dickinson from an early age, but she acknowledges that is not the case for students who may struggle with math and how to apply it practically.
“I think math and science can be this ladder-esque study, where if you feel like you struggle with it at a certain point in your life, and then you progress, you may never feel like you’re confident or you’re good at it.” Students can have bias in how they perceive their own skills, she said, due to past experiences.