Dr. Emily Dunkel Talks about NASA, Data Science, and the Two-Body Problem

Emily Dunkel, PhD

Dr. Emily Dunkel currently works as a data scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She arrived there after a career journey with many twists and turns through academia, defense, and commercial industry. Emily holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University, where she specialized in theoretical condensed matter and chemical physics. She double majored in physics and chemical engineering as an undergraduate at UCLA. We recently had a wonderful conversation about her career path:

Matt: Hi, Emily. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Emily: I’m happy to.

Matt: I see that late last year you started a new job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which I think is a dream gig for a lot of people. So, what’s it like working there?

Emily: Oh, it’s fun. It’s the biggest place I’ve worked at so far. It’s a great environment and there’s so much cool stuff going on.

Matt: How many people work there these days?

Emily: I think now it’s like 7,000 maybe, 6,000 or 7,000. They’ve run out of parking spaces. So, it’s a big place. But, I think about 3,000 of the people working there are contractors. They’re working for places like Raytheon that contract with JPL.

Matt: You’re a data scientist at JPL which means what, on a day to day basis? What do you spend most of your time doing?

Emily: The stuff I’m working on now is all related to object tracking. But in general, data science typically involves machine learning and things like that. It’s pretty broad.

Matt: Well, let’s take it back a little bit. You started out studying physics back at UCLA which is where we know each other from.

Emily: Yes. I was actually a double major with chemical engineering.

Matt: Right. Clearly, there was a decision that happened somewhere in there. What was your thinking process in doing both physics and chemical engineering? I think you clearly decided on the physics route after that. How did that transpire?

Emily: When I came to college, I decided on chemical engineering because I like chemistry, math and physics and it involved all three of those. Engineering can get you a job with a bachelor’s degree, was my thought. But then I started taking extra physics because I really liked my introductory physics classes. I really like quantum. Then I went to grad school in physics because I thought it was fun.

Matt: Well, that’s a good reason. So, that was your main thing? You just really enjoyed the subject and decided to follow through on a PhD?

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: Obviously, you were thinking about employability and your future career. Like you said, it’s a little easier to land a job straight out of school with an engineering degree. How did that play into your decision to going grad school? Did you have, when you were making the decision, a career trajectory in mind?

Emily: Not really. My thinking was that I already had an engineering degree so I was employable, and I thought with a PhD in physics you could get a job easily. So, I wasn’t too worried about that.

Matt: Okay. You weren’t set on being a professor or some other trajectory?

Emily: No, I was more doing it because I liked it.

Matt: Always the best reason.

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: So, you went to Harvard right?

Emily: Yes.

Matt: What was graduate school in physics at Harvard like?

Emily: The other grad students were really nice, so I liked that. It was different from UCLA because it’s a private school. I really liked my fellow grad students, but I didn’t like the weather. That was the worst thing about grad school, it was really cold in the winter.

Matt: It’s funny you should say that because I had sort of the opposite experience. I bowed out of Harvard as an undergrad partly because of the weather. I did the opposite private to public transition that you did going from undergrad at Stanford to graduate school at UCLA. You mentioned that there were some differences. What did you see as the differences between the private versus public school environment?

Emily: Well, the difference was more regarding the undergrads. UCLA had a much greater variety of students from different backgrounds. The students at Harvard just seemed to be, in general, from better-off families. They also had more of an idea of what they wanted to do or more of an idea of different career paths to take from the beginning. Whereas at UCLA it was more a mixture of students.

Matt: Okay, which is probably both a function of size and, as you said, kind of a legacy thing.

Emily: Maybe, yeah. There were students there whose parents went to Harvard. When I was at UCLA, a lot of my friends tended to have jobs to make extra money while they were in college, and I didn’t see that as much at Harvard.

Matt: So, more trust funds, I guess, huh?

Emily: [Laughs] Maybe, yeah.

Matt: One of the things I found in a private to a public transition was that the bureaucracy seemed to be a little bit less and things seemed to run a little more effectively. Do you have any flavor of that?

Emily: Well, the classes were much smaller than at UCLA, so I think the students got a lot more one-on-one attention. I don’t really know about the bureaucracy within the school.

Matt: Now you did a theoretical dissertation entitled “Quantum Phenomenon in Condensed Phased Systems.” Was that theoretical condensed matter for the most part?

Emily: Yes, it was. There was condensed matter and chemical physics.

Matt: Okay, so you stuck with a little bit of the flavor of physical chemistry throughout your dissertation work?

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: What’s the short explanation of your thesis work?

Emily: I developed methods to model quantum systems.

Matt: Was it mostly computational then?

Emily: It was both. I had to do some math to get the equations and then I coded them up.

Matt: After that, when you were coming to the end of graduate school, what did you see as your options? How did you feel about them and what did you end up doing?

Emily: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and a postdoc was kind of the next logical step. I applied to one postdoc and I got it, and I thought “Okay, I’ll try it. I’ll go and see what it’s like.” So, at the time I was more focused on graduating, not sure what I wanted to do, and a postdoc is the next step that people typically take.

Matt: Sure.

Emily: In my class, they were either going on to postdocs or a lot of people were going into finance at that time.

Matt: Oh, really?

Emily: Yeah. A lot of my friends in theory went into finance.

Matt: Even though you graduated in 2007, right? So, did they go into finance and quickly not go into finance, because that was right before the rocky period started if I recall.

Emily: Yeah. No, they went into finance and stayed.

Matt: Did you end up taking a postdoc that was related to your thesis work? Or did you go in a different direction?

Emily: It was kind of different. It was still theoretical chemical physics but I was doing different stuff than I had done in my PhD. I was trying to learn new things.

Matt: But it looks you were only there about a year?

Emily: Yes. I didn’t really like being a postdoc that much and I also got engaged and didn’t like living apart from my fiancé. So, I just stayed a year and then moved to the Bay Area and moved in with my fiancé at that time. Now we’re married.

Matt: It was also at that point that you transitioned into private industry?

Emily: Yes. When I lived in the Bay Area I was looking for jobs in industry, but it was a hard time. It was after the crash. At that time, there was no data science, that wasn’t really a thing yet. A lot of the places in the Bay Area were looking for software engineers. I had done some programming, but my programming was mostly in Fortran. So, software companies weren’t interested in me. Then I started looking in LA in defense and it was much easier. With my background, once I started looking in LA, I found a job pretty quickly and then we moved there.

Matt: What do you mean by your background?

Emily: With a PhD in physics, it was much easier to get a job in defense and aerospace than it was in software.

Matt: Okay. Is that just straight the PhD? Or were there other factors in there too?

Emily: I think it was just the background: the physics PhD. The company I ended up going to tended to hire lots of physics PhD’s.

Matt: Did you start doing classified work at that point?

Emily: Yes, I did.

Matt: It was probably helpful that you were a PhD who was also able to get the security clearance, which they don’t necessarily see every day.

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: So, that was kind of brave. You made the leap from your postdoc for personal reasons not knowing what was going happen with your career, right?

Emily: Yes.

Matt: Excellent. So, you and your husband were able to come down to LA together?

Emily: Yes.

Matt: Starting out in defense, it looks you were with Areté Associates for about three years and then you went looking for something new after that?

Emily: I was actually there for about four years. I really liked it. I was doing physics stuff: modeling ocean waves and the interaction with sensors. It was fun. Then the company started having financial problems. I took an online stats course while I was working there and started learning about machine learning. Then I ended up being laid off and that’s when I started looking for data science jobs.

Matt: Actually, this is a question that comes up a lot. How useful was taking an online course in your process of looking for a new job?

Emily: I think it helped me a lot because I didn’t have statistics before and I got hired as a statistician. When I was interviewing, I could answer the statistics questions because of the class. So, it was helpful for me.

Matt: Was the class something that you featured on your resume, or was it just being more conversant in the subject?

Emily: I don’t know if I put it on my resume. I probably did, but I think it was more just being able to talk about statistics. Areté, the company I was working at, also had kind of a data science lecture series. That was my first exposure to data science. So, I learned stuff from that too.

Matt: Cool. So, what was the work like at TrueCar?

Emily: It was different from the work I had done before. There was a lot of SQL, which I had never done, but they were still building models and I’m used to doing that. It was different because it wasn’t physics based, it was more based on customer behavior and modeling car prices.

Matt: Right. Did you miss the physics element, or did you find it just as interesting to be working on customer data?

Emily: I really enjoyed it there because the environment was nice. It was full of younger people. I did miss the physics and I missed defense actually.

Matt: Oh really?

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: What about defense did you miss?

Emily: With defense, I guess I always felt what I was doing was important. It’s not that it wasn’t important at TrueCar, but I didn’t feel the same way about it.

Matt: Right. Not the same sense of mission about auto pricing, I guess, huh?

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: I get that. My wife’s in the Navy so, I can see your point.

Emily: Oh cool. What does she do for the Navy?

Matt: She’s a commander in the Navy Nurse Corp.

Emily: Cool.

Matt: I can understand what you mean by environment because I see TrueCar is in Santa Monica which is not such bad place to work as I recall.

Emily: Yeah, we were right by the ocean and at one point my desk was by a window with an ocean view. I had to turn and look behind me, but there was the ocean. It was really nice.

Matt: But you end up moving on from TrueCar after a couple of years.

Emily: Yes. I was recruited by a tiny defense company and I missed defense. Your clearance is active for two years after you leave your defense job. So, I had to decide, do I want to go back in defense or do I want to stay in regular industry? I decided to go back into defense.

Matt: Okay. That was at a company called EMSI?

Emily: Yes.

Matt: That was more physics modeling again? Not that you can tell me the details.

Emily: No, it was actually machine learning. I was doing deep learning to detect objects in synthetic aperture radar imagery.

Matt: That’s a classic machine learning application, right? Identification?

Emily: Yes.

Matt: Interesting. That was down in the El Segundo hub of all the southern California aerospace and defense contractors?

Emily: Yes, it was in a cute little area. Downtown El Segundo is really cute actually.

Matt: I haven’t been down there in a long time. When you say the company was tiny, how small do you mean?

Emily: Oh, super tiny. I think when I was there, there were four or five of us. The owner and four full time employees and a few part time employees. It was really small.

Matt: I see. Did they have longer term or higher value contracts, or was this an SBIR type company?

Emily: They had a mix. We were applying to get new SBIR’s but they also did have a longer-term contract.

Matt: How did you like working in such a small environment?

Emily: It was too unstable for me, which is why I ended up moving on to JPL. There were some financial problems and so I started looking for a new job.

Matt: I can see that. I’ve known a lot of people in those little tiny SBIR companies and it’s almost like you don’t have a job as much as you are kind of a business partner, trying to always bring in grants and contracts. Did you find it that way?

Emily: Yes, I did. We spent a lot of time applying for new SBIR’s. It just wasn’t stable enough for me.

Matt: Fair enough. A part of the career journey is always about trying to figure what fits best for you. So, do you think you’ve reached the golden land at JPL?

Emily: Yeah, I’m very happy at JPL. I hope to basically spend the rest of my career at JPL.

Matt: Oh, wow. Okay.

Emily: Yeah, I like it. Originally, when I was at Areté, I really liked it and I was like “Oh, I’m going to stay here till I retire,” but that didn’t work. I think JPL is a good place and we have a lot of stuff to do. So, as long as they keep getting contracts, then I’d like to stay there.

Matt: JPL is basically an institution, so it’s probably one of the rare places left where maybe you have a shot at actually staying there for the rest of your career.

Emily: Yes. I think the key now is to try to have a good skill set. If you have a good skill set, even if the company you’re at isn’t doing well, you can find another job. So, I think it’s important to have good skill set and focus on that.

Matt: Absolutely. It sounds like, except for that one tough period you had when you moved from Texas to the Bay area, you’ve been able to transition without too much difficulty.

Emily: Yes, I haven’t really had any problems. Finding the first job after a PhD is hard, because then you don’t have any industry experience. It can be hard to translate what you did as a PhD into what companies are looking for. But I think the skills you learn doing PhD are actually really useful. It just can be hard to convey that.

Matt: I see. Did you eventually develop some strategy that worked to convey your skills, or did you just keep trying until you found a fit? How did that go?

Emily: I just kept trying. It was really the switch from applying to the Bay Area jobs which were, at that time, software-focused jobs, to applying in LA. I love LA, so I wanted to be in LA anyway. Luckily, my husband loves it too now. [Laughs]

Matt: [Laughs] He loves it too now, uh-huh.

Emily: He wasn’t, he’s from the east coast, so his view of LA was, it’s not a good place, but, yeah, he likes it.

Matt: You were able to convince him?

Emily: Yes, he said, “If you like it so much, it must be nice.”

Matt: There you go. You said if you had your druthers, you’d stay at JPL for many years. So, how do you see your career evolving there? Do you think you’ll stay in a technical contributor role? Does the prospect of getting into management appeal to you at all?

Emily: It does appeal to me, but I also really like doing technical stuff. At this point I’m not sure. I’ll see what happens.

Matt: Well, that’s worked out so far.

Emily: Yeah.

Matt: Cool. This is the last thing I like to ask everybody I interview: If you had to pick one key piece of career advice that you could pass on to the younger guys and gals in graduate school now, or even undergraduate, what would it be?

Emily: I guess I would say, study what you’re passionate about and interested in, but also try to get skills that are in demand in industry.

Matt: Okay. So, try to strike a balance. Follow your passion but keep an eye on the bottom line as it were.

Emily: I think so, yeah.

Matt: I think that’s really good. All right Emily, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Emily: It was nice talking to you too.