Student spotlight: Zoe Weinstein explores the problem-solving power of data science

Zoe Weinstein, a Data Science and Sociology double major (courtesy of Weinstein)

Zoe Weinstein x’25 grew up on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, but her fascination with data science and technology didn’t emerge until she arrived in Wisconsin. And her decision to come to Madison in the first place was based on a fortuitous visit to another Midwest city, during which she learned some good news.

“I happened to find out I got into UW-Madison when I was visiting Chicago, and my mom asked me, ‘do you want to go drive up and check it out?’” Weinstein recalled. “When I got here, I absolutely fell in love with it—the city, the people, the campus. I knew I wanted to be here, even without looking at specific programs very thoroughly at first.”

But once she dove into possible majors, she discovered that UW-Madison had outstanding programs in two of her academic interests: data science and sociology. She decided to double major. Now a junior, Weinstein has embraced data science as more than just a major: she is on the executive board of DotData, the data science student club at UW-Madison, and has secured data-centric internships through the summer and fall.

Discovering data science

Weinstein hadn’t taken much interest in technology prior to college, but she knew she enjoyed and excelled at math. Even so, she was (at the time) unfamiliar with the formal discipline of data science.

“When I came here and found data science, it was something I had never heard of before,” she said. The Data Science major, established in 2020 within the Department of Statistics, teaches students how to apply computational and mathematical skills to data-centric problems in a variety of fields. Now three years into her studies, Weinstein said she particularly enjoys “ the problem-solving behind working with data and coding.”

According to Weinstein, becoming adept at coding in Python has been especially rewarding and useful.

“I never felt like I was great at learning new languages like Spanish in high school, but learning Python just felt so natural to me. The code read like English in my mind, and it helped me solve real problems.”

-Zoe Weinstein

Weinstein highlighted a few memorable courses and instructors that have shaped her experience at UW-Madison. She said COMP SCI 220, Data Science Programming I, helped her grasp the foundations of coding for data scientists, especially in Python. Meanwhile, LIS 440, Navigating the Data Revolution, got Weinstein “super interested in data ethics and the almost philosophical side of data, she said.”

In addition, Weinstein said, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI), COMP SCI 540, which she is taking this spring, is “absolutely one of my favorite classes.” Taught by Assistant Professor Frederic Sala, the course delves into AI-related concepts like machine learning and probabilistic reasoning with applications for data mining, natural language processing, and more.

“Fred Sala is an amazing professor,” Weinstein said. “I could not recommend his class more.”

On top of technical data- and computing-focused courses, Weinstein’s sociology major has enabled her to explore social and cultural issues through a data-centric lens. After taking SOC 120: Marriage and the Family, Weinstein said, “I was absolutely hooked.” Since then, she noted, “I’ve had the opportunity to use data science and analytical skills in my sociology classes, which has honestly been a huge advantage for me. In that way, the two majors definitely complement each other.”

DotData: a student community

After finding DotData through the Wisconsin Involvement Network, Weinstein decided to try it out. “I started going to some of the meetings and met a new friend, who was on the board. That kept me coming back, knowing there are people here that are friendly and familiar,” she said. When some of the board members announced they would be studying abroad this spring, spots opened up for new board members. She applied and won the position of secretary on the executive board, beginning her term over the winter break.

Zoe Weinstein at the first DotData meeting of the spring 2024 semester (photo courtesy of DotData on LinkedIn)

“I have learned so much about the club and about data science, and I’ve met so many of my peers who are Data Science or Computer Sciences majors,” Weinstein said. “It has been an amazing experience.”

In the secretary role, Weinstein produces the club’s newsletter, which keeps members apprised of meeting topics and other events, including their annual MadData Hackathon. “One of my favorite things about DotData is the annual hackathon,” she said. “This year we had more than 200 participants sign up and 35 projects submitted at the end of the day-long event,” which took place in February.

Participants in MadData work in groups to solve any problem they choose using real-world data. “It was very cool to see how many people are interested in data science and what kinds of ideas people were able to come up with,” Weinstein said, “We had groups of freshmen who have never coded before meeting people who are expert coders and creating the most amazing projects.” The winning project, Tech Trends, was created by students Shlok Desai and Muthu Ramnarayanan. Inspired by the challenge of navigating large amounts of technology news online, Tech Trends is a platform that uses AI-driven personalization to enable users to navigate the online technology news landscape with ease and enjoyment.

Next up

During the fall 2023 semester, Weinstein said she applied to “somewhere between 60 and 80 internships.” The first company to invite her to an in-person interview was Chicago-based CNA, one of the largest commercial property and casualty insurance companies in the country. CNA ultimately offered Weinstein a role as a Data Engineering Intern this coming summer. After that internship ends, she will transition to a role as Data Analytics Intern for the Wisconsin School of Business (WSB), where she will use her data and coding skill sets to uncover useful insights in the School’s datasets.

Looking ahead to after graduation, Weinstein is open to multiple potential paths. “I’ve always wanted to leverage my data science skills to make an impact,” she said, “whether I end up staying in industry or pursuing a career in social science research.” She is hopeful that her upcoming internships will help her discover which aspects of being a data professional she enjoys most.

Zoe Weinstein’s story illustrates how data science enables students to engage in interdisciplinary problem-solving. Through the Data Science major and the DotData club, Weinstein—along with hundreds of fellow students, faculty, and staff—is an active participant in the fast-growing UW-Madison data science community.

To learn more about the Data Science major, visit its website.

For more information about DotData, visit its website.