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Overcoming imposter syndrome and uncertainty, Nina Hernandez BA’21, MS’22 finds success in data science

by Melanie Moyer,

As a first-generation college student, Nina Hernandez’s BA’21, MS ’22 lack of professional experience after she earned her Bachelor’s in Math at Willamette was a source of self-doubt. “I had no relevant background beyond my undergraduate degree and was working at a grocery store,” she shares, “Meanwhile, some of my peers were established professionals seeking to advance their careers.” However, Hernandez’s curiosity and passion for data-science research led her to Willamette’s Master’s in Data Science Program, where she worked to build her skills and professional network.

Nina Hernandez BA’21, MS’22

These skills she learned helped her land a post-graduation job at The Hartford’s Incubation Lab—or, the iLab—as a Data Scientist. Delivering technical support across all lines of business for the investment and insurance company, Hernandez works with partnering teams to produce innovative solutions and incubate new technologies or proofs for unique insurance use cases. “My work demands agility and adaptability to keep up with the rapidly-evolving data science landscape,” she says. “This includes utilizing cutting-edge techniques such as Generative AI, Computer Vision, and Intelligent Document Processing.” Hernandez, however, is ready for the challenge.

She shares, “Without the comprehensive training and exposure to industry-standard data analysis tools and techniques provided by Willamette’s Data Science program, I would not have been equipped to succeed in this role.” Participating in industry-relevant opportunities such as the Adobe Analytics Challenge and Google Non-Profit Marketing Immersion, Hernandez soon realized her aptitude for using analytics and real-world data for business solutions.

Career-specific guidance from professors and early-career advice from alumni and industry experts helped springboard her career, but support that exceeded technical and professional training is a key takeaway of her education. “In Prof. Jake Hoskin’s ​​digital marketing class, I gained skills across marketing, analytics, and machine learning, but he also encouraged me to challenge my insecurities and inner dialogues,” Hernandez says. She also credits Albaugh Assistant Professor of Statistics Heather Kitada Smalley with teaching her crucial data presentation and communication skills, and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jed Rembold with filling gaps in her data engineering, data wrangling, critical thinking, and data science application skills. Finally, in Associate Professor of Marketing and Data Science Jameson Watt’s Capstone course, she developed her interpersonal skills, including interviewing, public speaking, elevator speeches, and sharing feedback with others. This class cemented her confidence in her work and capabilities.

As for advice for other first-gen students, Hernandez recommends taking advantage of Willamette’s resources, including career development and industry expert guest speakers. Collaboration with classmates to investigate the field’s leading topics is also an invaluable opportunity. “Vulnerability and asking for help is the first step towards leveraging the wealth of knowledge around you.” She adds that she believes that, “building a strong network and potentially giving back in the future” are critical ways to engage with the field of Data Science.

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