From Yale to data science: How one alum made the leap
When Clarence Agbi ’09 B.S. went to Yale, few people were talking about data science. Agbi had intended to pursue engineering, and took an introductory physics course with Ramamurti Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics & Applied Physics, that solidified his interest. He decided, along with a handful of others, to follow the electrical engineering track.
“Yale is radically different from when I graduated,” Agbi says. “In the last 10 years, engineering has blossomed.”
Agbi says he “fell into” a career in data science after pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon and finding work with a government contractor. “Data science is a broad field using old tools to solve new challenges,” he says. “It brings together people from across computer science, physics, astronomy, biology, statistics, and electrical engineering to solve the same hard problems for many different applications.”
He now works for the cyber security startup BlueVoyant, cofounded by CEO Jim Rosenthal ’74 B.A., a role Agbi says requires many of the same skills he used in government work, adding: “My job is to look for patterns in data that will help us to quickly detect and defend against serious cyber security breaches.”
He’s returned to Yale on a few occasions to talk about how students can get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers and about what it’s like to be black in the tech field. As a lifetime member of the National Society of Black Engineers, Agbi says he’s always looking for ways to increase the number of women and minorities in tech, whether by judging robotics competitions or speaking to high school and college students. “Representation is super important,” he says. “It helps kids see themselves as future engineers or data scientists.” Agbi could often be found at the Afro-American Cultural Center while he was an undergraduate, and is now on the board of the Yale Black Alumni Association.
And he’s excited about the shift that’s happened at Yale, where data science is now a central focus. Beginning in 2016, the Department of Statistics became DS2 – the Department of Statistics and Data Science – bringing together faculty across departments like forestry, genetics, computer science, mathematics, and law, with an added major, classes, and faculty. A recent “Project Pitch” event in which faculty members from across the university pitched research projects in need of data science support to students was standing room only. Data science was also identified as one of the five top priority investments by the University Science Strategy Committee and highlighted at the most recent Yale Alumni Assembly, including plans to establish an Institute for Integrative Data Science and its Mathematical Foundations. Meanwhile, Data-Driven Yale brings together interdisciplinary and international researchers, programmers, scientists, and designers from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale-NUS College to use data analytics to drive policy solutions to environmental problems.
“Data is everywhere,” Agbi says. “What has happened is that computing has caught up with how much data we have.”