Taka Tanaka, PhD


Find him on Twitter: @astrobassball

Undergraduate: I did an independent major program called the College Scholar Program. I concentrated on physics, and my honors thesis was in laboratory biophysics, at Cornell University, 2003.

Graduate School: I attended the University of Pennsylvania for 1 year for a PhD in physics. I didn’t finish, leaving in 2004 with a master’s due to toxic department culture. I spent the next year working in finance, then moved to New York to take a part-time research assistant position in astrophysics at Columbia. I worked that job and two others before starting in 2006 as a PhD student in their astronomy department. I graduated in 2011.

Current job title: Senior Manager of Business Analytics at WW (formerly Weight Watchers)

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

As a child, I was obsessed with learning everything about the world. I had books upon books about insects, large mammals, dinosaurs, evolution, astronomy. And I was pretty good at math. For a long time, science was just doing what I liked: learning and math.

In high school, I thought I really liked biology. There were things like Jurassic Park (the first full book I read in English, in the 6th grade), the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and the movie Gattaca, that had me really excited about genetics. But during a summer job before college, I quickly realized that I didn’t enjoy lab work. I then leaned toward theoretical physics.

Later on in college, it all began to click in courses like astrophysics and quantum mechanics, when the satisfaction of solving a math problem came with the sense of wonder that I just learned something about the natural world.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

Prof. Yervant Terzian at Cornell was the first person to talk to me about graduate school. His course (which used to be taught by Carl Sagan) encouraged me to push and explore my own ideas.

Later, I had great co-advisors for my PhD, Kristen Menou and Zoltan Haiman at Columbia. They took care to place me in positions where I could succeed, and encouraged me to pursue my own research ideas.

The sponsor for my first postdoc, Rashid Sunyaev, gave me the freedom to work on whatever I wanted, and to attend whichever conferences I thought would be most helpful. It was because of this freedom that I was able to find out what my “A game” as a scientist looked like—in terms of coming up with ideas, forming new collaborations, doing the heavy lifting, and elevating the people around me.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

In my second year at Columbia, I ran into a wall. I found myself frozen with anxiety and lack of confidence that I could do research, or what doing research even meant. I became really depressed and angry at myself, and was generally not in a great place emotionally. (As an aside, in undergrad, you’re mostly trained to do problem sets and pass tests. But in about the second or third year of grad school, the whole game becomes about producing research results. That’s a really abrupt transition, one that was especially hard for me.)

There were three things that got me out of that funk.

  • First, my co-advisor Kristen pulled me aside and told me, “You’re a good student. Take ownership of your projects.” That set me free by making me feel like I didn’t have to prove my worth overnight. I started doing calculations with the attitude, “What if I did this?” instead of feeling like I was on the clock to produce results.
  • Second, I started teaching part-time at a local private high school, and really enjoyed it. Realizing that there were many things I could do even if the whole academia thing didn’t work out, lightened the fear of failure.
  • Third, I was really fortunate to be in a supportive environment where my fellow grad students, the faculty, and the administrative staff all wanted to lift each other up and help people succeed. My partner was also nothing but helpful. 

And that was it. As I experimented more with my calculations and plots, I realized that no one else had done this before, that it was original and other people in the field found it interesting. Before I knew it, I was being invited to conferences and I had more ideas for papers than the time to write them.

Grad school is/was a tough time for almost everyone I know. For most of us, it’s a time when we’re trying out how to live independently, making a new city home, navigating relationships, figuring out who we are, all of that. One of the most valuable things I learned was that for almost everyone, success in academia isn’t about some “eureka” moment or trailblazing genius; while we all grow intellectually in grad school, the things that I took away were the value of community and mentorship, and being good to the people around you.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

Twist number 1: After living in Germany for 3 years to do my first postdoc, and being really happy with my research output, I suddenly and completely lost motivation during my second postdoc. Moving across countries or oceans every few years was not an appealing picture of the future. A colleague of a family member pointed me to Insight Data Science, a program that helps academics transition into data science careers. I took about a month to teach myself Python (my previous experience was mostly in Fortran!), then applied to Insight. Through Insight, I joined a consulting firm as a data scientist.

Twist number 2: There were a few skills that my new company found valuable about me right away. And I realized that these were all skills or attributes that I had cultivated in academia, that I definitely didn’t have when I graduated college, and probably didn’t have out of grad school. 

These are:

  1. Coming up with new, actionable ideas for client businesses or existing projects—then quickly mapping out approaches and proofs-of-concept to tackling ambiguous and/or complex problems. I was also able to distribute tasks and manage project progress. These were all things I had learned from leading research projects with collaborators spread out over many countries. Astronomy research is more fast-paced than people think, and as it turns out, it trained me really well to lead data science projects in business.
  2. Being unphased when talking to senior executives of large companies, some of whom had pointed questions or skeptical attitudes. The partners at the firm were surprised that they could send me in a room with a CEO on my own to pitch ideas. After reflecting on it, I’m pretty sure this “boldness,” as my colleagues called it, is also a product of my academic training. As an academic, you give a lot of talks to expert and non-expert audiences (e.g. outreach events), and learn to tailor your message to the audience. You also get used to fielding questions from, and sparring one-on-one with, some of the most knowledgeable and powerful scientists in your field—institute directors and Nobel laureates, people who can make you look like an idiot in front of your peers or destroy your career with an email.
  3. Being able to cultivate company culture, and take the lead on things like kickstarting the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. This came from having experienced firsthand the value of community and mentorship as I wrote above—and from wanting to make sure that everyone felt supported, and was given the space and opportunities to succeed.

It’s often said that PhD academics don’t have skills that apply to business or the “real world.” You hear it so often, you begin to believe it. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that that’s not true at all. The things my team found valuable about me were all things I acquired through my experience as a grad student and as a postdoc. I’m grateful for all the opportunities (and the failures) I had in academia, because they truly did prepare me for my second career.

Twist number 3: After 2 1/2 years, I just left the consulting company to join WW (formerly Weight Watchers) as Senior Manager of Business Analytics. The role will involve starting a new team that uses data science to guide company strategy, answer ad hoc questions, and drive open-ended research. I’m really excited for this new leap, and feel that my past experiences have prepared me for it.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

There are a few hobbies that have really helped improve my work: reading avidly, listening to and playing music, and translating/interpreting Japanese to English.

I always loved to read, but it wasn’t until halfway through grad school that I learned to appreciate clean writing and good prose. For this reason, the last few papers I wrote in academia are vastly better written than the first few. Clear, organized writing is also valued in business.

From music and writing, I appreciate good storytelling. I look for the factors that, for the same song, make one performance riveting and another boring. Interpreting other languages makes me think about diction, effective idioms and the nuances of phrases. I try to incorporate these lessons into my presentations and writing.

Interpreting and performing music often requires one to think quickly on my feet, or craft a response on the fly while someone else is talking (playing). That’s very useful in business meetings, too.

I care deeply about fairness, and spend time learning about systemic unfairness and what we can do as individuals to combat it. I hope that comes through in the way I treat my teammates.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

  • Find mentors and accomplices. No one makes it alone. Find people who’ll stick their neck out for you, and be prepared to do the work to support them when it’s your turn. 
  • Form good habits. A lot of life in grad school or during a first job is figuring out how to live your life. Set aside time for learning, physical wellness, and the things that make you happy. (And yes, that usually takes work, as well as trial and error.) One of my favorite quotes is (paraphrased) “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
  • Confront the things you don’t know. It can be scary to admit that you don’t know things, especially in science. Keep a reading list to brush up on topics you feel you should know more about. Ask your friends, and set up co-learning sessions.
  • Think about the skills you’re building. Whether it’s coding, designing experiments, writing, or coordinating logistics, think about how you’re cultivating your expertise for future opportunities. If you’re not growing, talk to your mentors and friends to consider how you could be.
  • Have a backup plan, and know when to use it. For me, knowing that “If this doesn’t work out, I can always try X” was really important in lifting my fear of failure. A lot of people leave academia, and almost everyone changes companies at some point. Leaving doesn’t mean failing, especially if you’re doing it to find a better path or direction.
  • Figure out how to tell your story, and fight the shyness instinct. Chances are, most of the people applying to the same opportunities as you will have similar educational backgrounds, similar skills, and similar previous titles. Figure out how to talk about what you made of those opportunities.

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