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Female Disruptors: How Alicia Frame of Neo4j is shaking up the data science industry

In my role at Neo4j, I’m democratizing the practice. We’re taking incredibly academic science methods and making it possible for anyone who downloads our software to run algorithms with a few commands. You don’t need to have done your dissertation in network theory or deep learning to have access to highly predictive, powerful methods. You just need to know the question you want to ask and the data you want to use.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Frame, Lead Product Manager and Data Scientist at Neo4j.

Alicia Frame is currently the Lead Product Manager and Data Scientist at Neo4j, where she works on the company’s Product Management team to set the roadmap and strategy for developing graph-based machine learning tools. She earned her Ph.D. in Computational Biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.S. in Biology and Mathematics from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and has over 8 years of experience in enterprise data science at BenevolentAI, Dow AgroSciences, and the EPA.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

If you had asked me when I was in college if I expected to be a data scientist for a graph database company, I would have (1) had no idea what half of that meant, and (2) laughed at you. I was always good at math and computer science, but I had no confidence in myself and thought of them as dorky hobbies. I originally went to university to be a biologist, but I was a miserable bench scientist and terrible in the field. I never had the patience or precision for that kind of slow, meticulous work. What I always was good at was writing code to analyze my data and building mathematical models to describe the patterns I expected to find. While I was getting my degrees, I’d managed to pick up concentrations in Math and Computer Science based on coursework I was taking to satisfy my curiosity. About halfway through my Doctorate, I realized I could do the things I loved full time as a career.

My first job, while I was in graduate school, was as a database administrator for a federal database of toxicological data. I didn’t know SQL (Structured Query Language) until I qualified for the phone interview and found out I would be evaluated on my skills with it. The night before, I went through an entire “Teach Yourself SQL in 24 Hours” book and somehow got the job! Ever since that first opportunity, data, and databases, have defined my career. I’m a reliable programmer, and I know my math and statistics. Still, at every job I’ve had, it was my ability to find, manage, and transform data that distinguished my skills.

My specialty for most of my career has been chemoinformatics, which involves building mathematical models of chemical activity to find new drugs or identify potentially toxic compounds. Every molecule is represented as a graph, and you have to use the graph structure itself to predict what that chemical will do in real life. The techniques used in cheminformatics naturally extend to systems biology in general, where you’re using the relationships between things to make inferences about what they do. I used Neo4j as a database for years. When I found the opportunity to work for the company and take the techniques I’d spent years learning, painfully reimplementing from scratch, and scale those out into a real enterprise software product, the opportunity was incredible!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I think data science can seem a bit like alchemy or dark art. People get advanced degrees in esoteric things, they use complicated and obtuse methods to transform your data into black box predictions, and you’re supposed to trust the results. In my role at Neo4j, I’m democratizing the practice. We’re taking incredibly academic science methods and making it possible for anyone who downloads our software to run algorithms with a few commands. You don’t need to have done your dissertation in network theory or deep learning to have access to highly predictive, powerful methods. You just need to know the question you want to ask and the data you want to use.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Some of the best mentors I’ve had in my career were the first all-female leadership team I ever had. I was working on writing scientific policy using mathematical models to predict the impact of hazardous waste on human health. Still, I needed to get “real-world experience,” so I was sent from Washington D.C. to manage actual clean-ups in Chicago. In that office, I reported to the first female leaders I’d ever worked with in my career: Nefertiti, my section chief, and Joan, her branch chief. I had spent most of my career working with men and learning how to mask my opinions. I’d internalized fear of being seen as too abrasive or direct, but Nefe and Joan changed that. After I was in the office for a week or two, no one told me to be less me. I remember Nefe coming to my desk and telling me to just spit it out in meetings and say what I meant instead of hiding behind lots of platitudes. Neither Joan or Nefe ever told me to be quiet or keep my opinions to myself. They made it clear that they knew I was smart, and they trusted me to make decisions.

Although I’m no longer working in government, the best mentoring I ever had was when I was a “fed.” I think that because the pay is low, they make up for it in career development opportunities and passion. My first manager, Richard, hired me as a software developer because he could tell I was smart, and he knew I could learn. When he interviewed me for a job as a database administrator, I didn’t know SQL, but I promised to learn and he gave me a chance. I learned it, and later, he said I was the best student he had ever hired. Mike, my manager in the Superfund program, put up with all my rough edges and helped me learn to lead through influencing others and gaining their respect instead of demanding authority.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

When I was working for a large chemical company straight out of grad school, on my second day at work, I had a meeting with my boss’ boss. When I showed up at his office, dressed in my smart business-casual outfit and ready to get started, he looked at me and said, “Where’s your notebook?”. When I looked confused, he grabbed an empty notebook from his desk along with a pen and handed it to me. “Always bring a notebook with you when you talk to someone. Always bring a notebook to meetings. It’s respectful, it shows you’re always ready, and it communicates that you’re listening.” I was terrified of him, but from that moment on, I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. A few months ago, one of my engineers asked about the outcome of a meeting, and I said I would check my notes. He rolled his eyes at me, and I pointed out that I couldn’t check my email in a notebook, and that it was how I showed the people I was talking to that I was listening. He nodded, and a week later, I noticed he had his own notebook too.

One thing that’s always stuck with me is my sixth-grade teacher pulling me aside and telling me, “When I first met you and had you in my class, I thought you were stupid. But I’ve realized you were very smart… in a very feminine way.” I was mortified that she thought I wasn’t smart, but I asked her what she meant. She said that I was always quiet, and I hung back, and I was reluctant to speak up, but when I did, my answer was still right. I’m not sure what she intended for me to take away from that, but it’s been a lifelong reminder to me to just be regular smart, not “smart in a feminine way.”

Once when I was in graduate school, I was so angry about something that had happened and my mentor at the time looked at me and said, “Just flip the table!” What she meant was, don’t be afraid of how I really felt. By internalizing my own opinions and emotions, no one ever knew what I thought, and I only hurt myself by being afraid just to say what I wanted to say. Whenever I’m in a meeting, and I bite my tongue, I remind myself to emotionally just flip the table.

How are you going to shake things up next?

I am super excited about some of the things we have planned for our next release. My team is working on prototyping several different implementations of graph embeddings, and we’ll be the first software available that offers them on an enterprise scale. An embedding is a way of representing data in lower dimensional space — think of a short summary of a complicated concept — that is machine readable. It’s a way of taking all the information about node in a graph (or a word in a document!) and summarizing the important parts, and you can use that summary to predict outcomes, properties, or classes. It’s a super powerful machine learning technique, but right now you usually need to code something from scratch, and really struggle with big data sizes. We’re democratizing the technique so anyone can calculate an embedding for their graph data with a few simple commands!

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I use books and podcasts as an escape from my tech-centered life. In my spare time, I love to listen to podcasts about history — Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, BBC One’s In Our Time, and NPR’s Backstory. There’s no specific topic that I am passionate about. Instead, I find it most interesting to hear about different takes on events or understand what things in the past resulted in how we do things today.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

On a technical level, I think it’s essential everyone realizes the importance of relationships! I’m a life scientist, and I think about everything in terms of how it relates to other things and the context of it all. A customer’s interactions with products and services determine what they decide to do; a criminal’s interactions shape their future outcomes. I work in graph data science, where my job is literally to build tools that let people quantify and leverage the relationships between things to make predictions and characterize patterns. Context and connections are often more important than anything else. I wish people could shift their thinking to see things that way!

I guess this carries over to my personal pitch as well — relationships matter there, too. I think that an essential ingredient in my success has been my relationships with others. I strive to recognize everyone I work with for their unique talents and meet them where they are, and I view my main job to be enabling all the rockstars I work with. All of this comes from valuing personal relationships and connections. I know I can call on a colleague from 10 years ago, and they’ll help me answer a question, or put me in touch with someone who can, and I think everyone who works with me knows that I would do the same for them. Caring about relationships creates the trust and respect that is often missing in the workplace and beyond.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” — Theodore Roosevelt

This one quote has always stuck with me. We all need to do what we can — for others, for the world, for society — where we are with the tools at hand. To me, this has always meant shaping whatever situation you were in and whatever opportunities you had at hand in service of some greater good. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and that’s what keeps me motivated. For example, building tools so people can use graphs to cure cancer, or writing policy to keep kids from eating lead paint, or building models to predict and screen out pesticides that can cause cancer — it’s about doing good, regardless of your situation. To me, it’s the driving force behind why I love building tools to enable others to do amazing things. I’m good at it, and that allows others to shine. It’s also about more personal matters, such as taking the time to be kind or mentor someone, or just listen and make them feel valued. These are just as or more important as getting a flashy award or big promotion.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn. I also technically have a Twitter account (@aliciaframe1), but I am a bit of a Luddite in my personal life. Follow me for fresh updates on graph data science, but I’m still avoiding learning how Twitter works.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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