All Roads Lead to…Data Science?

By David Crocker

I’m a Data Scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and I’m doing work in a job that didn’t exist when I was born.  It took me a long time to get to where I am, but eventually I did it.

I went to a public high school that had a few really good teachers and I was able to learn a little bit of Calculus before I graduated.  I got into a great university, UCLA, but I wasn’t prepared emotionally to do what it took to get through College.  There were really three reasons for my dropping out.  I lived far away and couldn’t afford to move closer, so I rode the bus for four hours a day.  When you are in college you have to spend a lot of time studying, and I didn’t know how to stay focused on my homework back then.  Also, when I went to college I realized that I would never be a doctor and I was deeply disappointed.  You see, I didn’t know about how many interesting jobs there were out in the world.


So I dropped out.  And I worked laying carpet, I worked in factories, and I worked at convenience stores.  But I never felt like I fit in.  I was curious about the world.  I always wanted to know how it worked.  I read a lot of books that had exciting ideas.


So after I got over my own disappointment at where I was in life, I started to go back to school.  I went to a community college, El Camino College, in Torrance, California.  I decided that I would study Electronics, and I really began to study hard.  When my friends were out partying all night, I would leave early and go study, or get sleep, so that I would be ready.  I worked evenings and nights at a convenience store to pay for my rent and food.  I got a cheap car, but I rode my bicycle whenever I could to save money on gas.  It was hard, but it was also some of the most fun that I had ever had.  I was surrounded by people that cared about ideas in the same way that I did.  I graduated with an Associate’s Degree!


Then I got a job building satellites.  I was working on and touching things that ended up in geosynchronous orbit, and one even went to Mars.  I wasn’t good with my hands the way that so many of my coworkers were, though.  So I started to plan the production of satellites.  I was translating blueprints into instructions for building microwave integrated circuitry modules that sent radio, television, and data around the world.


But things couldn’t be easy, could they?  No.  The company that I worked for had stiff competition, and for a lot of reasons, that work dried up.  Luckily, I was paying attention to current events and I saw it coming.  A lot of my friends were spending money and going into debt, but I started saving up and paying off every debt that I had.  Then I moved to Denver, Colorado.


I didn’t have a permanent job.  I worked at a lot of temporary office jobs, and soon I had a reputation as a solid worker.  But I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t keep striving.  So I quit and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Denver.  I took out student loans for the first time in my life, but it took months before I started receiving the money.  At one point, I ate rice and beans for a solid month.  I had to borrow money from my parents, and it was humiliating.  But I paid them back as soon the money came through.  I got rid of my car and rode a bicycle everywhere in every kind of weather except ice—I learned that the hard way.


I love History and English, and I was thinking that I would get a degree in one or the other, but part of my degree required that I take a class on science for non-majors.  The professor that taught that class changed my life.  Dr. Robert Damrauer was able to teach Chemistry in a way that students without a deep background could really understand.  He convinced me to switch majors to Chemistry, he gave me a job in his Organosilicon Research Laboratory, and soon I was supplementing my income with money I earned doing science.  I owe Dr. Damrauer a debt that I can never repay.  He, and the Chemistry Department faculty supported my studies in a way that was both personal and professional.  They didn’t just teach me.  They cheered me on.  They corrected me when I made mistakes, and they gave me feedback that I needed.


I focused my effort on school and staying in shape.  I lived as cheaply as I could stand, and I made friends who studied together.  We quizzed each other, and when one of us got the material and others didn’t, we would explain it to the others.  Sometimes people who are smart and motivated don’t make friends because they are too busy competing with each other.  But that is a mistake that we worked hard to overcome.  We worked together, we studied together, and we shared our knowledge.  We competed with each other, too, but when someone else did better, we congratulated them, and we meant it.  The wisest thing that I ever did in college was to surround myself with people that were smarter than me, and help them however I could.


After I graduated I got a job installing and repairing scientific instruments.  I travelled for several years and went to hundreds of laboratories all around the country.  I worked in laboratories that tested food flavors, water and air quality, pesticides, and even chemical weapons.


After several more years, I realized that I still wasn’t doing the jobs that I was best suited for, so I went back to get my Master’s degree in Computer Information Systems.  I had programmed for fun in high school, and had taken several college courses, but it was time for me to get serious again.  I was working and took evening classes to get the degree, and it was very expensive, so I made sure that I finished.


This led me to a contract and then a job with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.  Now I work to integrate software and help other scientists with publishing their research and their data.  And one of the most important things that I am doing is making it possible to make our data available to the public.  Every federal agency, and many state and local ones, are now trying to make data available for free to the public.  This will change how the worlds of science and of government work because individual citizens will be able to use it to understand the world through science.  It will lead to new inventions and new businesses.  It will help ordinary people make sure that their governments are doing the right things.


I didn’t go straight through college like some of the other students in my high school did.  But I never stopped trying to learn new things.  I worked hard, and I still do, but a lot of people have helped me out.  I couldn’t have done it without some great teachers that invested their time and effort in me.  I couldn’t have done it without taxes getting invested in my schools and colleges.  For many years my jobs didn’t pay very well, but they were always interesting, and I always got by, and I always felt like I was doing something that made the world a better place.


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