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Spotlight on Commerce: Dr. Joanna Chan, Data Scientist, National Technical Information Service (NTIS)

Ed. note: This post is part of a series for Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW) May 6-12, showcasing the vast and diverse work of Commerce employees collectively working together to deliver important services that are helping the American economy grow.

Guest blog post by Dr. Joanna Chan, Data Scientist, National Technical Information Service (NTIS)

I am a data scientist with Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS) which delivers innovative, data science services and technologies to the federal government through partnerships with industry, universities and non-profits. I find it fascinating to explore data, gain new insights, and collaborate with our talented and dedicated federal colleagues (for whom I’m pleased to recognize during Public Service Recognition Week).  A lot of synergy is created by forming partnerships between the public and private sectors, and I see a lot of transformative possibilities across the government landscape. I feel it is very rewarding to help others consider how emerging data science capabilities can benefit mission outcomes, taxpayers’ investments, and ultimately, the American public.

But stepping back, though, I would like to share some of my background. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and I came to the United States one year after the Tiananmen Square incident. I studied business and computer science as an undergraduate since those subjects offered some great career opportunities. I also hoped that my academic efforts would support my dream of becoming a U.S. citizen.  Gratefully, I received my citizenship while working as an IT professional, and over the course of 14 years, I enjoyed working for both entrepreneurial start-ups and Fortune 100 companies, primarily developing cutting-edge software applications. Then I started down a new path after I discovered one of my passions – birdwatching.

As my husband and I began travelling to developing countries, attempting to locate the hard-to-find birds in their natural habitat, I witnessed the painful reality of habitat destruction, poverty, and income inequality. The concept of sustainable development interested me, and I took (what felt like a risky, but bold step) of returning to grad school, attempting to bridge my interest in both business and the environment.

Eventually, I began working on several projects in Central America that examined social entrepreneurship.  During those projects, I recognized a general lack of evidence-based methodologies, as well as weak local participation in the decision-making processes. In retrospect, my hunger for facts… data to answer my own personal questions about international development… led me to pursue my doctoral degree, which involved examining indigenous people and forests in Bolivia. My foundational work helped inform other research, which was presented during a United Nations’ Conference and led to the formal recognition of indigenous people and their contribution to biodiversity.

After graduation, I accepted a fellowship position with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During this fellowship, I joined the State Department and managed a data analytics project to inform multilateral negotiations at the United Nations. During my second year, I joined the National Science Foundation and helped manage an $11 million program that supported Big Data partnerships.

Coming full-circle to Commerce, I am excited to support NTIS’s mission because I appreciate the collaborative benefits of data science innovation.  Given my experiences in both the private and public sectors, I enjoy building bridges and partnerships – between people, programs, and technology, and I recognize the great opportunity that NTIS provides towards this vision, especially as more federal programs leverage our Joint Venture Partnership authority.

I have always enjoyed tackling complex challenges, but perhaps that is because of the answers we find through data science methodologies. Whether it involves government innovation or environmental studies, I know that data science is frequently a key ingredient for finding the best solutions. I encourage others to consider the value of public service; to find a mission which speaks to their passions; and to help address challenges affecting people across the nation or even in our local communities.