Sharing the Love of Data Science

Alice Zhao (MSiA ‘13) talks about using the lessons learned in the MSiA program to launch her own business and make data more understandable and actionable for others.

Alice Zhao calls herself a lot of things. A data scientist. An educator. An author. A mom. A Chicagoan. And when it comes to what she does, Zhao has a clear answer.

She makes complex things fun and easy to understand.

To do that, she relies on the education she received in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Analytics (MSiA) program.

Alice Zhao
“I specialize in making data science accessible,” said Zhao, who runs A Dash of Data, her own freelance consulting business. “I really enjoy wrangling big, messy problems into clean and simple solutions."

"Educator" is one of the first ways Zhao (MSiA '13) describes herself because she is passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. She found that passion in a roundabout way thanks to her husband, a viral blog post, and MSiA.

It started in 2009 when Zhao’s future husband gave her a gift to celebrate their one-year dating anniversary – a document of the back-and-forth text messages that chronicled the genesis of their relationship. Soon after Zhao graduated from MSiA, she found a unique way to apply lessons learned in her Text Analytics course.

Zhao took the original gift from her husband and added all the text messages they’d exchanged since. She then analyzed them to see how their texting changed over time.

The result was not only a gift for her husband but a post on her blog, “How Text Messages Change From Dating to Marriage." The post went viral, was discussed on several talk shows, and translated into multiple languages.

"People seemed to be interested in what I had to say," she said, "and that motivated me to keep on creating."

Zhao published more blog posts showcasing the fun side of what data can do. She created and posted video tutorials on data science concepts. She taught programming courses and spoke about machine learning at conferences. Then, in 2021, she wrote the SQL Pocket Guide, 4th Edition (O'Reilly Media, 2021).

Her career path shifted after the release of her book.

“People started messaging me and asking me to lead data science workshops and do analysis for their companies,” she said. “I took on a few gigs and enjoyed it so much that I decided to not go back to a full-time job immediately and work as a freelancer instead.”

Thus, A Dash of Data Consulting was born.

Zhao’s mission is to help her clients tell the right story with the data at hand. She has assisted TV producers correctly incorporate statistics into their shows and used natural language processing to help businesses find important themes hidden within survey data.

With each project she blends the science and art of data analysis. The goal? Provide her clients with solid, actionable information so they can make wise decisions to move their businesses forward.

She credits the MSiA program with making that possible.

“Attending the Northwestern MSiA program was one of the best career decisions that I made and it changed my life,” she said. “I was able to make life-long friends and launch a career in a field that I am passionate about.”

McCormick News Article