Participant Profile: Laura Gent Leverages Data Science Insights in New Role

By Dawn Driscoll-
Laure Gent
Laura Gent, Acting Director, Office of Mission Integration and Financial Management, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Laura Gent describes herself as an energetic, results-oriented, collaborative leader with 20 years of federal financial management experience across agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services. In summer 2020, she boosted her existing strengths in leadership and financial management by seeking new skills in data science through the three-part Foundations of Data Science for Business Leaders program from Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning. Her commitment to career development came in handy as she joined the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in November 2020.

Why did you choose the Foundations of Data Science for Business Leaders Program?

I wanted to become more relevant. Technological advances are happening all around me–in my personal life, at my government agency and in my volunteer work. I also serve on the board of a credit union. I participate in the credit union’s strategic planning process and sit on the IT Steering Committee even though I’m not technical. The material covered in the Data Science workshops apply to every aspect of my life, and the material I learned enables me to demystify the technical terms that you frequently come across.

What were your goals coming into the program? Did it meet those goals for you?

My goals were fairly general as I wanted to become more relevant and contemporary. This program absolutely met my goals. In my new role, I’m at an executive level and need to understand a variety of technical topics and use data for strategic or communications purposes. The content was perfect for me because it had a lot of breadth. It touched on a wide array of technical topics and what’s going on in the data science space. The program also incorporated ethics, design thinking, marketing and leadership into the curriculum, which provided an incredibly well-rounded perspective.

Did anything surprise you about your Darden experience?

I was part of the pilot for the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the environment in the Rosslyn location felt very calm and safe. The professors expressed great joy in returning to the classroom, and I was blown away by how customer-oriented they were. Darden really sent their top guns to teach this program. The professors showed a genuine interest in getting to know students and were very accessible. They even let us know that we could contact them after the program. When I look back on how bad the COVID pandemic has been, this program was a complete highlight for me and was one of the few things that has helped me get through the challenges of COVID.

Were there any ‘a-ha’ moments you experienced in the program?

I was at a different government agency at the time I went through the program, and that role focused on budgeting and writing funding requests for IT projects. Understanding the technical language and concepts better helped since I frequently had to write technical proposals. It was not just the nuts and bolts of data science, but the program focused on the bigger strategic picture. There were several interesting case studies about companies that either failed or succeeded due to how well they understood technological shifts and their strategic use of data. One of the big concepts taught was identifying, “What is your question?” If you want the data, you need to understand what insights you’re trying to obtain to help your business.

The frameworks and models related to using data to transform your business were also incredibly helpful to my credit union work. The board was in the middle of a strategic planning process, and I came back prepared to ask relevant questions because I understood everything so much better.

How have you integrated what you learned in the program into your current job?

At my new agency, they are very progressive. There is a lot happening with systems and data, and they’re well-versed in design-thinking methods. I’m about two months into my new role, and I’m already having conversations with people about the systems and data governance. I’m excited to start applying my learnings from the program in a much more profound way shortly.

What would you tell someone about the program that they may not know from visiting the website?

I remember reading the course descriptions, and I was unsure if the topic around building a data pipeline was going to apply to me. However, now having done the entire program, I would say that all the material is useful for a nontechnical person. It covered a whole gamut of topics, and I especially enjoyed the content and professors in the workshop on building a data pipeline. I would highly recommend to someone that they do all three parts of the program to get the full picture of data science topics related to business.

I also appreciate that I still have access to the program materials through Canvas and can reference the content when I need to remember a concept that applies to what I’m working on. I am confident that I can reach back out to one of the professors if I have a follow up question and like knowing that I have that support.