From Lab-top to Laptop: Why I Chose Data Analytics
By: Aaron Beczkiewicz
As a firm believer that we are the sum of our experiences, I often find myself looking back on the various jobs I have held since starting college. While some of those experiences are starting to blend together, I will always remember my first supervisor telling me my sophomore year of college that I should take a statistics course even though it was not required for my major. Shrugging off this advice at the time, I thought to myself “I’ll never need statistics.” How wrong I was…
I was certain for the longest time that I wanted to be a benchtop scientist working in a laboratory my entire career. As I became more involved in laboratory work and my tasks became second nature, I realized that it was not actually the laboratory work I enjoyed but the challenge of learning and perfecting new skill sets. Like most students in a biology-based major who find they enjoy college coursework and do not want it to end, I decided to go to graduate school. While completing my master’s project, I came to view the challenge of synthesizing results into a cohesive argument as a puzzle I was working to solve. For me, this shift in thinking also brought the realization that what I really wanted out of a future career was something that would be intellectually stimulating and keep me constantly learning.
I was hesitant at first to continue on into a PhD program because, on a base level, I was concerned I would struggle due to my (at the time) limited experience with statistics and data analysis. What pushed me over the edge was the harsh reality that I would eventually need to shift out of the laboratory and into an office role to pursue the career I wanted. Regardless of whether I made the shift while still in school or ten years down the road, I knew it would require a different skillset than what I had developed in the laboratory. So, I set out to change that by focusing on quantitative research methods during my PhD program.
As a now fully computer-based graduate student surrounded by students who spend the vast majority of their time in a laboratory, I am sometimes asked why I would give up benchtop work if I truly enjoyed the hands-on aspect and excitement of walking in each morning to look at the plates I had streaked with bacteria the day before. My answer, in short, is always that data is the future of food safety and the broader food industry in general.
To see this, one has to look no further than the 2020 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting where an entire panel discussion – “Data Revolution: Is Food Safety Sitting on the Side Lines?” – focused on what the food industry and regulatory agencies must do to bring the field of food safety into the 21st century. With increased automation of food processing resulting in companies collecting large amounts of data on a daily basis, there is a lot of potential to use this data to inform processing decisions for improved food safety. However, as recognized during the session, there is a lack of food safety professionals who can effectively translate and integrate information collected across the field of food safety. To address this issue, panelists and attendees voiced support for offering statistics trainings and short courses to individuals currently employed in the food industry. While increasing opportunities for individuals to obtain more advanced statistical training could help, I think the true challenge in meeting this need is going to be finding ways to engage and encourage a traditionally laboratory-based field to take advantage of the training opportunities provided.
Looking back on my academic and professional career since first starting in a laboratory six years ago, I am not sure whether I would have thought to pursue a data analytics focus on my own. Regardless, I walk into work every day happy that my first supervisor encouraged me to expand my focus beyond the laboratory for possible careers and I encourage others to do the same.
Graduate Research Associate