The Data Engineer

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Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

The Data Engineer


Zachary Cohen, Data Engineer, Zinnia, Inducted at University of Connecticut, 2015

I’m a physics and math grad turned data engineer who enjoys learning new things. I’ve always had a love of space, which led to an interest in physics and math from a young age. I attended the University of Connecticut and graduated with a double major in those fields. I then earned my MS in physics from the University of Minnesota, where my research focused on space plasma physics, specifically, on observing electromagnetic waves in shock waves generated by coronal mass ejections. 

Since becoming a data engineer, I’ve worked for a medical imaging contract research organization (CRO) that analyzes and packages data for pharmaceutical studies, and more recently entered the field of life insurance.

A data engineer creates, maintains, and monitors software services that gather data from far-reaching sources and aggregate that data in a central location. They then prepare the data for analysis or an artificial intelligence or machine learning pipeline and assist with upkeep of the analysis and machine learning models to parse insights from a complex dataset. From day to day my work can be creative (programming and debugging), developmental (learning new application programming interfaces, or APIs), and even theoretical as it leads to a deeper understanding of statistics.

Learning about programming and statistics and applying them in new ways is a bit like being in some of my favorite classes in college and grad school—but getting paid for the work. I have ownership over a large code base and the opportunity to gain insight into interesting topics like data science, behavioral science, and the latest and greatest cybersecurity. There’s always something new to learn.

Those who aren’t particularly data or statistics literate may not be aware of the benefits of using analytics and trends to understand people’s behavior—and what that means in practice. For instance, instead of relying on gut feelings to make decisions, companies can use tools to gather data that pinpoints consumer preferences. Instead of holding onto aging systems, companies can take advantage of new tools and processes that increase accuracy and efficiency.

One of the biggest challenges in my career is monitoring the access and transmission of people’s personal information. People input identifying and private information into many websites and services. We don’t want that information to be available downstream—or be at risk if a company gets hacked and data is stolen. To minimize the risk of that data getting out, we try to limit the surface area of access to people’s personal information. We also strive to stay up-to-date on the latest technology for encrypting, hashing, and masking that data.

My advice to students is to learn as much as you can from peers and professors. Talking to others will help you understand the world more deeply than you ever could working alone. Also, don’t be afraid to leave the obvious “physics” fields or programs—there are many interesting and challenging careers that love physics-trained people and rely on the same concepts and tools that physics researchers use every day. And lastly, remember to prioritize your physical and mental health, which is invaluable both personally and professionally.   


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