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Audrey Dickinson on a mountain top

Data analytics alumna: OSU has ‘all the tools’ for student success

By Grace Peterman

After earning her bachelor's in chemical engineering, Audrey Dickinson returned to Oregon State for a master's in data analytics that would allow her to have a greater impact in her career.

“If you say some vaccine is x percent effective, what does that really mean?” asked Audrey Dickinson (M.S. Data Analytics ’21). The Oregon State alumna went back to school to learn how to answer just such important questions.

Dickinson was working as an engineer at HP in Corvallis when she realized that a better understanding of data would make her work even more impactful. The value of data for industry really stood out to her, she said. Oregon State’s two-year online Graduate Program in Data Analytics gave her the flexibility to earn her credentials while still working full-time at HP.

“There are a lot of great professors and the coursework was very valuable. Right away, I applied things that I was learning to my real-life job,” she said. Professor Charlotte Wickham in the statistics department was particularly engaging: “she has a data visualization course which has helped me immensely in communicating data analytics,” said Dickinson.

Ensuring ethical use of data

Since graduating from the Data Analytics program, Dickinson traded her engineering role for that of a Driver Analyst at HP, looking at key data points driving business metrics. In today’s unpredictable world, the value of professionals who can accurately interpret data and forecast results is greater than ever.

Data analytics is “very powerful,” Dickinson said, but understanding its limitations is also important. Equally vital are the ethical use of data and integrity in how we convey supposedly cut-and-dry scientific figures to a public not initiated into the scientific process.

“We talk a bit about that in our data science courses,” Dickinson said. “If you report something in a very scientific manner, how is that interpreted by the general public?” Although science is often thought of as objective, how we communicate it and present data has a big effect on how it is perceived.

“If someone comes to you and they say, ‘I can predict this with a certain amount of accuracy,’ what does that truly mean? And how much confidence can you really stake in their results? I think that’s powerful to know and understand,” she said.

Finding identity in STEM

Before delving into data analytics for her master’s, Dickinson earned her B.S. in chemical engineering at Oregon State. Although a minority as a woman in many of her classes, she “always had a lot of support” in her program, finding community in Oregon State’s engineering sorority Phi Sigma Rho and inspiration in the excellent mentoring and involvement of professors like Willie E. 'Skip' Rochefort. “He’s a very unique person,” she said, always participating in events like Discovery Days to get students more involved.

Dickinson knows the value of getting hands-on with math and science in early education, because her mom was a middle-school math teacher growing up. STEM was accessible and inviting to Dickinson from an early age, but she acknowledges that is not the case for students who may struggle with math and how to apply it practically.

“I think math and science can be this ladder-esque study, where if you feel like you struggle with it at a certain point in your life, and then you progress, you may never feel like you’re confident or you’re good at it.” Students can have bias in how they perceive their own skills, she said, due to past experiences.

OSU alumna Audrey Dickinson

Dickinson found that OSU's student resources opened up a world of possibilities for community building and career enrichment.

A solid support system can go a long way to rewriting the story for students who struggle. "It is very important to find mentors and people that you connect with to talk to about your career, the decisions you’re making, what you want to do and how to achieve that,” Dickinson said.

For women in STEM, “there’s still not equal representation,” she said, and getting plugged into a community is particularly vital. Part of Dickinson’s role at HP includes mentoring interns and new hires. These programs are a “great tool for building relationships” and making sure team members from all backgrounds are supported and welcomed.

Mapping her future through Oregon State

Dickinson recently accepted a job transfer at HP to Washington D.C. From central Oregon, she said that leaving the West Coast is bittersweet. Reflecting on her time at Oregon State for both her degrees, “I really found that Corvallis and Oregon State has been a home for me,” she said.

Dickinson’s story is also a reminder of how flexible and interdisciplinary a career in STEM can be. Although initially an engineer, more time on the job brought nuance to her perspective, and she was able to layer Oregon State’s Data Analytics master's on top of her engineering degree to achieve a weightier position at HP.

Sometimes a career path can take unexpected turns, but in the end, “you really do get what you put into things,” she said. “Getting more involved at OSU in my undergrad days really led to some of the internships I ended up doing, and the job I ended up taking.”

Her advice for future students is to take advantage of all the resources Oregon State has to offer. “OSU has all the tools and the people to help students be successful and to really create that community,” she said. “Find the professors that you feel are strongly influential for you, or if you find a group interesting, get to know them!”