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Psychology Alumna Lands Role in Data Science

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Matt Johnson

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michelle lee

Ask any graduate student, and they'll tell you clearly: Grad programs are no easy road.

That's especially true for PhD students — and even more so for someone studying traumatic stress. With those challenges in place, Michelle Lee (PhD '18) was going to need a great deal of help to succeed in her developmental psychology doctorate program at DU.

Luckily, and perhaps ironically, she found some of her greatest support in the person who was providing her most challenging opportunities: Dr. Anne DePrince, professor and department chair for the Department of Psychology. That support has already translated into the start of a successful career working with data science and artificial intelligence.

"[DePrince] really supported me throughout my graduate studies in terms of what kinds of areas I wanted to research, what I was really curious and passionate about, how I was navigating through my studies, because it [was] really challenging," Lee said. "I [also] really appreciated that she checked in and made sure I was doing OK personally."

Throughout Lee's studies, DePrince led Lee in research projects and served as her academic advisor. Lee jumped into research, even in extremely difficult areas such as the cognitive effects of interpersonal trauma. She also wrote papers on topics such as domestic violence and elder abuse.

Lee eventually gained the experience necessary to implement her knowledge of trauma psychology outside DU as a research consultant studying sex workers — another opportunity provided through DePrince.

Over time, working on such mentally and emotionally difficult projects involving trauma started to wear on Lee. Throughout her studies, she found support from her classmates and from DePrince, who in turn was impressed by Lee's thoughtful approach.

"Michelle tackled important and challenging research projects during her time in the Traumatic Stress Studies Group — addressing questions about sexual assault risk and consequences, for example," DePrince said. "I've been so impressed at how she used her research experiences as well as classes in our doctoral program to identify career paths that would be meaningful and impactful."

Lee's difficult learning experiences certainly didn't go to waste. Assisted by a data science bootcamp she attended while completing her dissertation, Lee landed a job with the major education company Pearson in Centennial, Colorado. She has worked as a data scientist there since November 2018, focusing on integrating artificial intelligence with educational tools.

One of her recent projects is a customized learning app that allows students to take a photo of their homework and receive step-by-step feedback through an online tutoring tool. Lee hopes the work will lead to advances in customized learning for students in an accessible way.

Not surprisingly, when Lee decided she wanted to pursue data science rather than academia, DePrince was there for her.

"Something I really appreciated was when I decided to go the non-academic route, she was also very supportive and tried to see if there were things she could help with in terms of connecting me with somebody, or having ideas about [opportunities] to look into . . . I really appreciated that support too," Lee said.

Lee made sure to pass on the same type of backing she received from DePrince to undergraduate research assistants. As she guided the students through research processes and answered their questions about graduate school, she witnessed firsthand their development as students and researchers.

"They've all gone on to do interesting and very diverse things: law school, grad school in psychology, mental health counseling," Lee said. "It seems they all got different things out of being part of our research group, and that's something that really stood out to me."

Lee was thankful to be part of such an intimate and supportive department at DU, where students knew about each other's lines of research.

"We weren't competitive, which happens a lot in other psychology departments," Lee said. "There was no 'I have more publications than you' attitude. That's something I really liked about DU and I think that's unique to our psychology department."

One of Lee's goals for the future is to continue to learn more about the growing field of AI. She hopes to grow and take on more leadership roles, but no matter where she goes, she'll never forget the impact of the help she received from one of her greatest supporters.

"[DePrince] has been a huge mentor, not just in research and navigating academic life, but also in professional development," Lee said. "It's been great and we still have a great relationship."