After ‘winding road’ to a data science career, Sadie St. Lawrence helps women find a home in the industry

At some point during her first year at Sacramento State, Sadie St. Lawrence ’13 (Psychology) realized she was sick of taking care of rodents.

Sadie St Lawrence

She was working in a lab called “The Neurobiology of Emotional Learning and Memory” and loving the opportunity to learn about science and conduct research. Working with animals? Not so much.

“It was another kind of life crisis where I said, ‘OK, how do I keep the things in my life that I love but get rid of things that don’t bring me joy?’ ” St. Lawrence says. “I honestly don’t even know how I came across data science, but as I read more about it I realized I had some of the core competencies, and then the other ones I thought I could develop.”

Just four years after graduating from Sac State and a little more than a year after earning her master’s degree online from Villanova University, St. Lawrence is the lead data scientist at Rancho Cordova-based VSP, heading up efforts at the United States’ largest vision insurance company to develop data-driven solutions to a variety of business challenges.

When she’s not working, St. Lawrence runs the nonprofit she founded two years ago, Women in Data. The organization – which is focused on raising awareness about the field of data science, educating businesses on how they can use data, and helping to advance women in the field – is borne out of her experience both as a woman in a male-dominated industry and as someone who did not realize until later in her education that the career was an option in the first place.

“The only way the field is going to continue to progress is if we continue to create diversity,” she says. “Any time we shut that off, we’re going to see things slow down. I love my work, I love what I do, so I’m just taking my two passions, data and women, and combining them to make them more diverse and make a better work environment for everyone.”

The lab “life crisis,” was actually the second of its kind along what St. Lawrence calls the “winding way” to her career. An Iowa native, she initially attended Casper College in Wyoming on a piano scholarship before transferring to Sacramento State, which had an exchange program with Casper that allowed her to receive in-state tuition. At the same time, she fulfilled her dream of moving to California.

By the time she came to campus for orientation, however, she realized she didn’t want her hobby to become her job. She had become interested in studying how the mind functions after reading a book about music disorders of the brain, which is how she ended up switching her major to psychology – and how she ended up working in labs like Evolutionary Ecology of Fishes and, yes, Emotional Learning of Memory.

“Sac State was great because I was able to explore so many different ideas with excellent teachers to guide me along the way,” St. Lawrence says. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ and my stance is, sometimes figuring out what you don’t like to do is the best way to figure out what you do like to do. Sac State gave me a lot of options to figure out who I really am and what my passion is.”

While concurrently starting her career at VSP and taking graduate courses, she became dismayed that the only opportunities for women data scientists to network seemingly were only in the Bay Area. Drawing on her involvement with the American Association of University Women’s Sacramento State chapter as a student, she decided to take matters into her own hands, founding Women in Data in 2015.

The first meet-up drew just four people. But two years later, it’s an entirely different story. The organization now boasts nearly 600 members, just received tax-exempt status, and is looking to expand to other cities. Events include data science presentations that are open to the community, technical training, and other networking opportunities.

St. Lawrence’s hope is that Sacramento’s data science community becomes as strong as or even stronger than that of the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, especially as she has grown to love the region. In her spare time, she’s a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner as well as an avid outdoors enthusiast – paddleboarding in the summer, skiing in the winter. And she continues to play piano, a thread that leads back to the start of the sometimes-meandering road to her present.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to just find our path,” she says. “You may take a different route to get there, but if you know your end goal and what you want to accomplish, you’ll find a way.”

Once an ESL student, recent graduate begins her career as ESL teacher at Sac State

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Hannan Hawari MA ’17 (TESOL) grew up speaking Arabic, was placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom at an early age, and received early lessons about the importance of how not knowing a language can be a barrier to opportunity.

“I felt that barrier when I was younger and when I was growing up,” she says. “A lot of times, when I was with my mom, she wouldn’t have the right words to negotiate something on the phone, or ask about something at the store. It seemed like language was a very powerful tool.”

Today, she’s helping international students in Sacramento State’s English Language Institute (ELI) overcome that barrier, serving as an instructor and teaching American Language and Culture. ELI, run through Sacramento State’s College of Continuing Education, offers several programs throughout the year to help international students become stronger English speakers and learn about American culture to prepare them for study at a four-year college or university in the United States – often Sacramento State. Hawari also has spent time leading ELI’s Conversation Clubs, weekly meet-ups where ELI students can practice their language skills with Sac State students.

“Language is very powerful,” she says. “I feel like I’m giving them another tool. A powerful tool.”

Hawari grew up loving reading, writing, and school. A Stockton native, she earned her undergraduate degree in English literature at nearby University of the Pacific before enrolling at Sacramento State for her master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) – combining her lifelong passion for learning with her first-hand knowledge of the power of language.

She came to Sacramento State for the same reason many others do: access and opportunity. The University was nearby, affordable, and allowed her the flexibility to continue working. Plus, her brother already was at Sac State as an undergraduate. But the campus quickly became much more than a place to get a degree.

“I felt like (Sac State) was the place where I truly grew. There are a lot of services for students as well as a strong, inclusive community,” Hawari says. “It seemed to be a very diverse campus. There were a lot of people I felt were like me, who had the same struggle, and were first-generation college students. There seemed to be a real acceptance of that on this campus and it felt like a good environment to be in.”

Working at the University Writing Center and as an instructor for a first-year composition course provided her with real-world experience tutoring and teaching. She also worked off campus at a private learning center in Stockton and as an intern with ELI, where she also volunteered with Conversation Club.

“That was a wonderful program that helped me build my knowledge of how to teach ESL speaking and listening skills,” Hawari says. “It gave me valuable practice in classroom management and standing in front of the class.”

She ultimately was hired to teach summer courses with ELI and hopes to continue in the fall. Longer term, she plans to continue working with adult ESL students, perhaps at the K-12 level, or perhaps even abroad: Her bigger goal is to return to her parents’ home, Palestine, to teach English.

In the meantime, Hawari is cherishing the opportunity to share both her experience with the power of language and her passion for teaching and learning with students from across the globe.

“I feel like I’m a part of them because I’m kind of that in between where I’m not really American, I’m not really Arab,” she says. “I understand the struggle of coming to a different place and having to feel like a foreigner. They have their own culture and they’re excited to share it, but at the same time they’re excited to learn so much more about American culture. I just love the idea of teaching and being part of their language experience.”

Alum Jim Maccoun to take over for alum Daniel Hahn as Roseville police chief

Sacramento State alumnus Daniel Hahn ’95 (Marketing) is leaving the Roseville Police Department to become chief of the Sacramento Police Department, but that doesn’t mean the former is losing its connection to the University. Hahn’s replacement in Roseville will be fellow alumnus Jim Maccoun ’86 (Criminal Justice), the Roseville and Grass Valley Press-Tribune reported this week.

maccoun,james
Photo courtesy City of Roseville

Maccoun joined the Roseville department as assistant chief in 2014, following 32 years in Sacramento and, according to the Press-Tribune, “built a reputation in Roseville for working diligently behind the scenes, with Hahn recommending him to Jensen as his successor and Jensen interviewing no other candidates.”

Maccoun is the latest in a long line of Sacramento-area senior law enforcement officials, including former Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Sculley and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Hahn also is the third Sacramento State alum in a row to lead the Sacramento Police Department, following former Chief Sam Somers Jr. ’88 (Criminal Justice) and current Interim Chief Brian Louie ’12 (Criminal Justice).

Sacramento State’s Criminal Justice Department is the second-largest in the nation.