March 23, 2020

Meet Yola Katsargyri, Data Scientist

GoGuardian Team
Yola Katsargyri headshot

March is National Women’s Month, or Women’s History Month, in the United States. For the month of March, we are showcasing the incredible women of GoGuardian in our “Women in STEM” interview series. From engineers to product managers to researchers, these brilliant women share their journeys in education and science/technology, as well as advice to others who might follow a similar path.

Today’s interview is with Data Scientist Yola Katsargyri. Yola has a Ph.D. and Master’s in Electrical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from National Technical University of Athens, Greece.

What was your favorite subject in school (K-12)?

This will probably not be surprising, because it agrees with the career I followed, but my favorite subject was math. The thing I’ve always loved about it is that it’s objective and truthful. If you know how to do it, it will always give you the same answer without surprises. You can trust it, because it’s independent of opinions, beliefs, and subjective factors. Of course, growing up and having to work with it everyday, I realize that the way you generate and interpret math results can be subjective, and that’s the art you need to excel at when you apply math to businesses.

Who is a teacher from your student days that made an impact on you, and why?

The teacher that had the most impact on me was my father. He was a mathematician, high school teacher, and author of the math books that were used by the Greek school system for 30 years. He taught me math from the age of 4 until the age of 17. Quite a few things made him one of the most impactful teachers I ever had. He started teaching me math in the form of games, and kids love games, so he made me love math like a game! Then, when I got older, he taught me how to be methodical about learning and how math can be a handful tool, not only in school, but also as a general mindset. That effect of him was not only on me. He could adjust his teaching style to different ages, but also different student personalities. He would manage to turn students’ fear for math into knowledge and trust in a handy tool that will never lie to you. He was a great teacher, because after many years of experience, he could still think like a student and a learner. What a great virtue for a teacher to understand and respect students’ unique capabilities and guide their learning adventure through those…

What drew you to become an expert in data science?

No tool is useful until you actually employ it for something useful! For me, data science was the perfect place to use math to answer important questions. Data has been growing as the most important asset of many businesses and the world in general, during the last decade. Data Science is the framework that uses math to find golden patterns and exciting answers to real-life questions, through seemingly dull sets of data. It is so exciting, though, to see how many hidden gems you can find in those…

What message do you have for young women who may be thinking about a career in EdTech?

EdTech is an exciting field! Education is changing very rapidly due to technology. This massive evolution of the field comes with great benefits, but also new challenges and concerns. Some years ago, the teacher could just look at the students and understand what they are doing at every moment in the class. Now there is a computer between them and the whole internet world that the students can access through their screens. Their access to it brings amazing benefits and learning opportunities, but we want to make sure that they also stay safe out there! EdTech is in the middle of this amazing change and aims to build the tools that will shape this new form of education. At GoGuardian, we are excited to lead the way to a richer but safe learning world!

What’s the best way for young women to seek out mentors in science and technology?

Whether you are studying or working, look around you and try to find people that inspire you or people that do something a little bit better or differently from you! Independently of their level, gender, nationality, or position, try to understand why you are inspired by them and what you can learn from them. Anyone that can help you improve may become one of your mentors; you will have many mentors in your life. Any little thing that you learn and can make you improve is a great achievement. And be proactive; don’t just observe!!! Try to apply what you learn from them in your own projects, work and life. Try to reach out to those people that inspire you, and pursue a closer collaboration with them. Make them aware that you want to learn from them. There is nothing wrong about learning and nothing wrong about asking!!! Don’t be shy!! Asking and learning is the best thing that can happen to you. It can only make you better and stronger!

How do we foster the development of the next generation of women in science, engineering, and product?

This effort should start at a very young age, through both schools and families, and should continue in the adult society too! To enable girls to grow into women that can pursue anything they like, we need to encourage them at a really young age to explore different skills and strengths they may have and not try to limit their exploration. During this exploration, if we notice that they have a good grasp and some inclination toward natural sciences, analytical thinking, etc, which is extremely common actually, we should strengthen those with relevant classes, programs, and even games. Both at school and in the family, we should always reassure them that there is nothing they can’t do, if they go for it. And even after this young age, we need to encourage women of all ages about all the things they can be good at, and not just the things they are traditionally considered good at! We need to eliminate the impostor syndrome, i.e., the persistent internal fear that one's accomplishments and talents are not good enough, a syndrome very prominent in women. And for that to be achieved for all people in general, we need to keep creating a society, including everyone and not only women, that recognizes the plethora of talents every person can have, independently of gender or any other demographic separator.

What does personalized education mean to you?

It means an environment, physical or digital, that helps the students learn, given their own weaknesses and strengths. This environment will recognize their strengths and passions and will offer them ways to ride an enthusiastic wave of learning that makes them even better at what they are naturally good at. Also, and equally importantly, this environment will pinpoint their weaknesses and will offer them ways to turn them into robust acquired skills. Finally this environment should surround the students in a way that they can feel safety and trust, but also fun—enough so that the only thing they focus on is all the great things they can learn.

To you, what’s the difference between learning and education?

Education is more formal, structured, and can last for a certain amount of time, e.g., days, months, or years. Learning is more impromptu, creative, instinctive, and everlasting. We never stop learning, and nothing limits our learning ability. These amazing characteristics of learning are the ones we should try to incorporate into our education system as much as possible. At the age when learning is so easy and can be the main focus of a person, it would be great if we could find ways to make formal education more impromptu, creative, instinctive, and without unnecessary limitations.

What impact has your role had on the success of GoGuardian?

GoGuardian is a place that inspires me every day to be my best self, technically, ethically, and creatively. With all this inspiration, I hope that through my role, I can contribute strongly to how GoGuardian shapes—with constant respect to the students—this new form of education. Building Machine Learning models that can keep students safe and focused in the internet world is one way to do that. Thinking through the important implications—good and bad—that our work may result in, judging and projecting anything that can go wrong, and trying to find solutions to protect students’ privacy and wellbeing is another way to do that.

Is there a particular individual in history who has inspired you? If so, why?

When I was really young, I read the biography of Marie Curie. Her work, in collaboration with her husband Pierre Curie, paved the way for both the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne and the first female Nobel Prize winner, as well as a mother of two! Her childhood was not easy or rich, but her parents, both teachers, equipped her with the mindset that learning and knowledge can take you really far. Her story inspired me and still does, because it is the greatest example of how much we can achieve with our mind, our work, and our passion, independently of how many difficulties we meet on the way.

Keep checking back this week and next for the conclusion of our Women in STEM series!