passing on the baton, corporate handover

Lisa Falco, Director of Data Sience at Ava shares some key moments of the path that led her to where she is today.

I remember when I was 18 and had just gotten into my engineering studies (Engineering Physics, to be precise) and I was at a party talking to some guys I’d just met about it. They just looked at me and said, “We know a guy doing that but he’s like SUPER smart”, clearly insinuating that I did not look like that kind of person. I got a lot of reactions like that in the beginning which scared me at first. Even more than not being smart enough, I didn’t feel that I was the engineering type. I had not spent my youth programming my Amiga (the PC that was popular in the 90’s) and I also didn’t care much about motors and machines and other things that you associated with tech in those days.

I would say that my dad had a significant part to play in my decision to study Engineering Physics. I wanted to become a medical doctor or a journalist, but he told me that engineering studies, especially in physics, was a better option as there were plenty of rewading career opportunities. He also reassured me that “in engineering you can be average and still have a great, well paid job”. Whilst this advice wasn’t motivational as such, something about my dad’s persistency in wanting the best for me and my own curiosity to explore an unconventional path led me to pursue a career in physics.

The first three years of my studies were tough. My days consisted of pure math and physics and I just couldn’t wrap my head around all of the formulas. I began to question myself – what was I going to use all of this knowledge for anyway? Then after the first three years I discovered programming and image processing and things started making sense. Programming entails writing down a step by step solution to a problem, it forces you to decompose all of the necessary steps of the solution into smaller comprehensible parts. I finally started understanding what I was doing and it became more enjoyable. I enjoyed image processing which entails using programming to apply mathematic formulas to images and you can see the images change, you can smooth them, you can sharpen them, you can recognize objects etc. Before smartphones and social media apps like Snapchat even existed, we were developing the kind of software and algotithms that they use now such as filters which enhance faces. It’s exciting to see that these types of functions are now used and enjoyed by millions of people across popular social media. It was like the mathematic formulas that felt so abstract came to live and finally got a meaning.

As I mentioned, I initially wanted to become a doctor so being able to work with medicine from a technical perspective was incredible. During my career I have had the opportunity to work across many different domains within health and the human body which always fascinates me.  Among other things, I have developed methods to analyse brain connectivity, I have tried (and ultimately failed) to develop non-invasive methods to track glucose for diabetics, I’ve also worked on the analysis of bone structure and biomaterials and now in my current role at Ava, developing methods to help women get pregnant faster by measuring the physiological impact of their hormonal changes.

Whilst I had been passionate about many of those things I was never quite passionate about the actual technology itself or the tools that I had been using. I have been using data science and machine learning throughout my whole career, but the methods alone have never been what has fascinated me, for me, it has always been more about what can be done with them – this is what intrigues me.

I believe that we need to stop thinking that you must love the tools or be a geek to get into tech. It’s of course important that there are people who are passionate about the tools themselves, but it’s just as important with people who master the tools but are passionate about their applications. A passion for the application can help you bring in new perspectives and see the problem from angles different than the pure technical part. This is something I believe women do very well which is one of the reasons why we need more women in tech.

With a solid technological background, I also feel that you get a lot of respect in the workplace which has definitely been the case at Ava but also with my previous employers.  It is great to be in an environment where I can combine my technical skills with my passion for womens health. The demand for people with strong technical skills is very high which might also be one of the reasons I have been lucky enough to have had the advantage of being able to dictate things that are important to me on my own terms. This has particularly been helpful in allowing me to have flexibility with my working schedule when I became a mother. By offering flexible working models here at Ava, we have been able to attract some amazing female talent to all teams, but also in the data science team which is normally a rather male dominated field. I believe the combination of a topic that women are very interested in, together with a flexible and friendly working environment has made that possible for me. I can only imagine the endless amount of possiblities and opportunities there are today for the new generation of women that wish to follow a similar path to mine.

By the way, I eventually met that  SUPER smart guy during my studies. Not only did he live up to the expectation of being “super smart” but he was also super nice and when I told him what his friends had told me he just laughed and said: “These guys? Why would you mind them?”.