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Strength in numbers

Dana Thacker. (Alyson O’Hara/Iowa State University)

Dana Thacker (’23 data sciencemathematics) wants to be in the room when big decisions could impact people’s health and well-being.

“The example I keep giving is that someone had to be in all these different hospitals analyzing COVID data in 2020, asking, ‘When does it look like the peak is going to come based on trends?’” she said.

Her dream job is to communicate data-driven recommendations that can make a positive difference in areas from staffing to medical equipment inventory.

“I want to be on the front lines of helping to make decisions that directly impact hospitals or clinics,” she said. “I want to help run the business side of health care so that health care professionals can do their work well and help patients.”

Studying data science

As a high school student, Thacker had an interest in health professions, but she wanted to study something other than life sciences in college.

“I took calculus junior year of high school, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of fun,’” she said. “Maybe I should roll in that direction.”

Before her senior year, she attended an actuarial science and risk management summer camp. It was interesting, but actuarial science felt too specific for Thacker.

“Then my mom found the new data science major that was starting fall 2019,” Thacker said. “I thought it would be cool to be the first class to graduate fully with data science, to be the first group of people to do that and pave the way at Iowa State.”

While she was first surprised to learn how broad data science could be, Thacker embraced the learning curve. For example, Iowa State was her first introduction to coding through her computer science classes.

“There’s so much of it that’s computer programming and behind the scenes, like data warehouses,” she said. “I’ve been in several classes that are like ‘OK, we have this huge data set, but now we have to figure out not only how to clean it, but how to store it, and how to manipulate it in such a way that we can pull specific things.”

Thacker said LAS Career Services director Tessa Brow helped her connect the dots between her interests in data and health.

“I told her how I used to aspire to be a health care professional but have since discovered that I am much better at math and statistics,” Thacker said. “She was the one that first suggested to simply combine them and bring data science to health care.”

Real-world learning opportunities

Dana Thacker (’23 data science) is among the first Iowa State students to graduate after four years in the new data science program. (Alyson O’Hara/Iowa State University)

To prepare for the future, Thacker has since studied the insurance industry during a summer internship with Nationwide, listened to patient perspectives as a part-time pharmacy technician, and conducted Honors Program undergraduate research as a data analyst for a hearing loss app.

For her research, she connected with Iowa State’s nursing program to inquire about assisting with potential data analysis needs. Thacker analyzed data for a lecturer who is researching the use of a hearing loss app. The app pre-screens for hearing loss and is being tested as a low-cost tool in retirement communities to hopefully help nursing staff make effective, efficient referrals to audiologists.

“It’s been cool to combine Iowa State with data science and health care, and to see how this process can actually help others,” Thacker said.

Shaping the future

Thacker will be one of the first Cyclones to graduate after four years in the program, and she continues to help shape the future of the major as a student leader. She is one of the data science learning community’s first peer mentors.

Thacker said the learning community, which has evolved since her first year, is getting better at helping students make connections earlier at Iowa State. Because data science students take courses in many areas, such as mathematics and computer science, the learning community makes it easier to find friends to sign up for classes with, she said.

“It has been cool to have a role in impacting and advancing the program for the future, because data science is going to be around for a very long time,” she said.