Advice to students: Look for opportunities to do things you aren’t already good at
Oct 27, 2016 | Atlanta, GA
Rebecca S. “Becky” Tucker is a senior data scientist at Netflix, an entertainment company based in California. After Tucker obtained a B.S. in Physics in 2008 from Georgia Tech, she continued graduate studies at California Institute of Technology, earning a Ph.D., Physics, in 2014.
Tucker attended Centennial High School, in Champaign, Illinois. She lives in Los Angeles.
What attracted you to Georgia Tech? What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
I originally applied to Georgia Tech to become an aerospace engineer, because it had one of the best programs in the country. Additionally, I was accepted in Tech’s President’s Scholars Program, which made it financially possible for me to attend.
One of the most important things I learned was what I didn’t want to do. During a summer internship with an aerospace company, I realized that day-to-day of engineering was not as interesting to me as the math and physics behind it. I switched out of engineering and into physics in my sophomore year.
What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?
I always remember the Georgia Tech whistle and how it set the rhythm of my day. My feelings about the whistle changed every year. At first I thought it was just a neat tradition, but soon I began to dread the fact that it woke me up every morning. (I made the very common mistake of not prioritizing sleep in my first few semesters at Tech.) By the end of my four years at Tech, I had come to regard it as a friendly, if insistent, reminder to keep making progress throughout my day.
What roles did your Georgia Tech education and experience play in your journey to your current position?
I got to my current position as a data scientist through the relatively circuitous route of a physics Ph.D. I would never have been able to get my Ph.D. without the help of Dr. James Sowell, who was one of the few physics faculty at the time who accepted undergraduates as researchers.
Working with Dr. Sowell on binary stars was my introduction to scientific research. I liked it so much that I decided to continue doing research by going to graduate school. Dr. Sowell also mentored me and encouraged me to participate in the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Without those research experiences, I likely would not have been accepted at Caltech, where I did my Ph.D. in experimental cosmology.
What do you like most about your current job? The least?
I consider myself extremely fortunate to work for Netflix as a data scientist. My job is fast-paced and intellectually satisfying. I work with an incredibly talented team of data scientists in a culture that encourages experimentation and exploration.
The thing I like least about my job is the commute! I suppose that’s the price you pay for living in Los Angeles.
What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?
The greatest challenge of my professional life so far was my decision to leave academia and look for a job in industry. I deeply enjoyed cosmology and research, but a future career in science seemed, at best, uncertain and, at worst, impossible.
In my final year of graduate school, my team’s experiment was scheduled to be deployed from McMurdo station in Antarctica after many years of work. Unfortunately, this was in 2013, when Congress decided to shut down the federal government. As a result, the entire Antarctic science program was canceled for the year, which ultimately delayed our project for two more years.
This episode is emblematic of how science is currently conducted in this country. A career in academic research almost entirely depends on the whims of funding agencies, and the rug can be pulled out from underneath you at any moment. This, coupled with the lack of tenure-track jobs in my field, is why I ended up working as a data scientist rather than as a physicist.
What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?
The most gratifying experience of my professional career so far was my participation in the Insight Data Science Fellows Program, which helps academic scientists make the transition into industry careers in data science.
I participated in the early days of the program, when these types of programs were not as well-known as they are now. I felt that I was taking a calculated risk, and that by doing so I was taking control of and responsibility for my own career path. The eight weeks of that program involved 80-hour weeks and an exhilarating amount of new information and skills. It culminated with an interview with Netflix, which is where I currently work.
If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?
I love data science, and I can’t really imagine doing anything else. My job involves a lot of statistics and machine learning, which in retrospect would have been equally as enjoyable and certainly more relevant than physics as a field of study. However, I do find myself growing more and more interested in entrepreneurship and can imagine a future in which I start my own company.
What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech?
Sleep! Courses at Tech are difficult and stressful (but rewarding). I guarantee that they will feel worse if you are not getting enough sleep. Try to be in bed by midnight or 1 a.m. every night.
More philosophically, I encourage all young people to embrace failure. The fear of failure is paralyzing and will prevent you from doing your best work. Look for opportunities to do things you aren’t already good at—this is where growth happens. Most success stories are really a long string of failures that lead to final success; learn from your failures and you will eventually accomplish what you set out to do.
What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?
I love to be outdoors and to travel. Last year I backpacked through the Grand Canyon and hiked around Mont Blanc in Switzerland. Next month I am going trekking in New Zealand.
If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?