DataX – Amy Winecoff: working at the intersection of data, technology, social sciences

Monday, Mar 29, 2021
by Sharon Adarlo

Amy Winecoff’s path to becoming a data scientist at Princeton University was a circuitous one but it has uniquely prepared her for the interdisciplinary work she is doing which touches on engineering, technology, public policy, and the social sciences.

Before starting at Princeton in October 2020, Winecoff studied the arts, became a professor of psychology, and then switched gears to become a data scientist.

“It’s not common for data scientists to come from the social science field. Sometimes you will see those people in other data science roles, but not so much in the roles where they are actually building and evaluating algorithms,” said Winecoff. “For many of the teams I have been on, I’ve been the only person who has expertise in psychology and that has been very useful for us in thinking more broadly about how people use algorithms and the societal implications of that interaction.”

Winecoff is one of several data scientists hired as part of Princeton University’s Schmidt DataX Fund, which aims to spread and deepen the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning across campus in order to speed scientific discovery. The Center for Statistics and Machine Learning (CSML) oversees part of this initiative on campus and has been heavily involved in hiring data scientists like Winecoff for DataX.

The University announced the creation of DataX about two years ago. Its mandate includes the hiring of data scientists for three research areas: the Princeton Catalysis Initiative, the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), and biomedical data science.

Winecoff is working in CITP, which address the opportunities and challenges that happen between people, society and digital technologies. CITP draws members from computer science, engineering, politics, economics, sociology and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Winecoff has already started working with faculty on different aspects of their projects such as Arvind Narayanan, associate professor in computer science.

“We are so pleased that Amy has joined Princeton and DataX,” said Peter Ramadge, director of CSML. “She has a unique background that includes the social sciences, academia and industry – all of which makes her well suited for the work she is doing and for the various faculty she is in collaboration.”

Winecoff earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University, where she at first did studio art and then majored in arts applications.

“But I realized more and more that I had an interest in science and the way the studio arts program was set up, it really wasn't possible to take any lab classes while also doing that program. So, I changed my major to an art degree that was more encompassing of both theory and practice,” said Winecoff. “The program also gave me space to take science classes.”

After college, Winecoff decided she was going to study psychology in a doctoral program because human behavior, cognitive issues and neuroscience fascinated her, she said. She had already done some psychology research as an undergrad on a volunteer basis, but she wanted something that had more clinical relevance. Eventually, she landed a fellowship at Duke University and started working on research that involved neuroimaging to study cognition and human behavior.

“I ended up working on some questions about how the brain changes as we age and how that affects people's emotional processes and decision-making processes,” said Winecoff who enjoyed all the work involved in scientific discovery.

Winecoff earned her Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in 2014 with her doctoral research focused on how different regions of the brain respond to reward and emotional stimuli. These stimuli can include food and money as well as emotionally-evocative images, such as pictures of family. She also researched how the brain functioning of people with eating disorders differ from people without eating disorders.

After earning her doctoral degree, Winecoff then assumed a position at Bard College as an assistant professor of psychology, which she held for two years. Besides teaching undergraduates, she performed research on the connections between body preferences and sports participation, and ties between disordered eating, social behavior, and personality.

But her time at Bard, which was heavily focused on teaching, made her miss doing research. She left academia and started working as a scientist at Charles River Analytics, a Cambridge-based firm that performs research and development on advanced training using virtual reality and other cutting-edge techniques, cognition, and robotics. In her role, she conducted research on human behavior while working alongside engineers. She also began developing machine learning algorithms to support technology that was meant to support or augment human performance.

This was a natural progression, Winecoff said. Her research in academia involved analyzing large and messy datasets of brain scans collected in controlled, laboratory settings. Her work at Charles River Analytics involved developing algorithms from large, messy datasets collected in real-world settings.

Winecoff took her burgeoning data science skills and started working at True Fit, a software company that provides fashion style and fit recommendations for shoppers at online fashion retailers. As a senior data scientist at True Fit, she developed recommendation systems and conducted research on how users think about and make decisions based on recommendations. In her next job at Chewy, an online pet product retailer, she designed a system to provide recommendations to users based on information they volunteered about their pets’ characteristics such as age and breed.

Coming back to academia at Princeton as a data scientist, is a welcome change that brings her full circle, said Winecoff.

“I am at my happiest when I am trying to solve real problems that are going to be translated into real products, but still be able to engage in the research process,” said Winecoff. “I am excited to be at a position that will utilize all of my skills and background and work with great faculty and students who are looking at interesting questions on how digital technologies are impacting society.”