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