Sahab Aslam graduated from the School of Information with a master’s in data science in 2017. Prior to the I School she graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a M.S in mathematics from Fairfield University. She is currently head of enterprise in data science & AI at Myriad Genetics and lecturer at the I School.
Why did you choose the I School?
I chose I School because at that time, there were only three data science programs - Cornell, Columbia and Berkeley. MIDS was the only one that was online. MIDS also had a more curated and holistic data science curriculum compared with others that consisted of existing courses from statistics and computer science departments. I am glad I made the right choice.
What was your focus at the I School?
My focus at the I School evolved when I School exceeded my expectations. My initial goal was to acquire technical skills and the thought process needed to create insights from data, so I focused on learning from the academic coursework. Soon, I realized that peer interactions were an opportunity to learn from the wealth of experience and knowledge my peers and faculty had. This led to me showing up prepared for live sessions and valuing class participation.
What was your favorite thing about the I School?
Am I still allowed to say the I School faculty? I think the best part of I School is our strong-knit community of current students, alumni, and faculty. This is also a key differentiator. Imagine having your own Stack Overflow and Reddit for anything data science at your fingertips with 1600+ active users on Slack. The community genuinely takes care of each other.
What was your favorite class?
I had a few, but Field Experiments, aka MIDS W-241 was the best MIDS experience. Compared to the other classes where I had Type 2 fun, I enjoyed the coursework that imprinted an in-depth understanding of causality. I do not know if other students also experience the Tetris effect after taking W241, but I couldn’t stop thinking about if I could influence an outcome if I tried something different in my daily life. The thought process I gained from this class probably rewired neurons in my brain. It trained me to nail down the assumptions regarding the data collection process to the generalization of insights.
Honestly, I do not know if it was the class itself or it was Dr. Alex Hughes' teaching which is an experience of its own. That semester was his first-semester teaching in MIDS. I am super stoked I can still learn from him in our faculty meetings.
You’re currently the Head of Enterprise at Myriad Genetics. What compels you to work in the fields of medicine and data science?
Almost everything in our life is tied to ours and our loved ones' health. Access to the needed medication can be a matter of life and death.
My first assignment in MIDS was a prompt asking how we saw ourselves as a data scientist in five years. I wrote about optimizing pathways to getting drugs in underserved and remote populations — a global supply chain problem. I didn't end up doing exactly that. But most of the projects in my career have had the end goal of increasing access to drug therapies. With time, I realized that therapy alone is not a complete solution and path towards recovery and managed care. I started advising and investing in digital health companies. Now, I am working to improve patient access to genetic diagnostic tests for better preventive care.
What is it like being on the faculty for MIDS after being a student?
I always had a lot of appreciation and respect for my professors in MIDS. After becoming faculty myself, I was a little surprised to learn about all the hard work and time spent behind the scenes of every successful class each semester. As a student, we only see the end product without knowing the many iterations and collaborations that hone the curriculum.
I teach the course that covers the foundation for how data scientists utilize their skills to add the most impact in their organization. I share my own personal success and failures with my students and learn from theirs as well. The best part is that I get to “hang out” with MIDS and MICS faculty in our workshops and course planning. How cool is that!
You have spent time giving back to the community—by volunteering for panels and Women in MIDS coffee meetups, and now serving as a mentor. Why do you volunteer your time to the community?
The volunteer community is an ecosystem. I volunteer my time because others have done the same for me. I have to give back what I owe. When I was in MIDS, some students started the student-led Slack community. No one had graduated from MIDS — so no alumni community. Most of us were not working as data scientists. There were limited resources online and also limited data science jobs. Yet, we all banded together to help each other out for different needs. The community was initiated by students and organically grew from there. I was lucky to be part of that process and witness the difference it was making. As we uplift each other, it will show in our work that we do in the world.
Can you share any thoughts on how your identity has shaped your path?
Being a minority in STEM as a hijabi Muslim Pakistani immigrant woman has not been an easy journey. I have my stories that no matter how many times I tell, they don't get old as those challenges and obstacles still exist for many others. I also have stories where others supported me through those challenges, helped me gain strength, and taught me empathy and self-awareness. I am open to others' perceiving or experiencing a situation differently than how I perceive them and feel comfortable to initiate healthy dialogue for a learning opportunity to myself.
What advice would you give your past self as an I School student?
Don’t rush. Take your time to build an in-depth understanding of concepts, so when you need to explain these complex concepts to the people around you, you can do so in the simplest way possible. Enjoy the learning process. MIDS and MICS are a lot of work, especially with other life commitments. But this is also an opportunity to have a growth sprout. Set goals other than just acquiring technical skills. Find ways to contribute back to the community and build strong relationships with your peers, alumni, and faculty.