Why We Serve: Saran Ahluwalia
In this series, you’ll hear stories from USDSers and learn why they decided to join, why they stay, and how their work is making an impact for all Americans.
Saran Ahluwalia (he/him/his), Digital Services Expert (Data Science), USDS at Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Originally from Syracuse, New York.
What led you to become a data scientist at USDS?
From my perspective, there are two narratives here: why is data science necessary for public service, and secondly, why at USDS?
First, I need to rewind to what motivated me to start on this journey. From an early age, I was exposed to life experiences that inculcated in me the importance of education. The most influential moment was seeing President Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, speak at my college on service and purpose. After college, I started my professional career as a high school science teacher in Washington, D.C.
I pivoted into data science and engineering in 2015, first serving as a data science consultant at financial firms and law enforcement agencies. Later on, I worked for a couple of startups — DivvyCloud and Social Tables. Along the way, as a data science fellow, I had the privilege and opportunity to work with the Department of Commerce’s Chief Data Scientist Jeff Chen and Presidential Innovation Fellow Tyrone Grandison on a project that incorporated spatial statistics and a classification model for estimating the degree to which any given city block in D.C. would be gentrified in the next year. The ambition was to use the Small Business Administration’s data sources to inform where grants and funding should go to support local business.
These experiences opened my eyes to how mathematics and data can be used in the service of the public. At the time, USDS was just starting to emerge, along with other groups such as 18F. For me, the idea of joining USDS was a pipe dream and inaccessible to someone so young and inexperienced.
However, these experiences motivated me to pursue applied research to improve the human condition during my postgraduate studies. I had the privilege of working with Dr. Eric Laber on creating a new method to detect human sex trafficking, and separately, for spatial classification of microbial substances, potentially bio-weapons.
Ultimately, my ambitions to improve educational equity, to increase access to the internet, and to enable individuals to thrive on a secure internet led me to work in Cisco’s Advanced Security Initiatives group. Fast forward some time (so that I don’t explicitly remind myself that I am aging), right before I joined USDS I was a lead data scientist working on problems that focused on product measurement and increasing revenue retention.
However, the most enjoyable time for me over the past two years was volunteering as a data scientist with Code for America on GetCalFresh as well as working with the PPE Relief Initiative that served the hardest-hit hospitals and medical centers in the Tri-State area during the pandemic. Ultimately, these two experiences finally motivated me to apply to USDS.
What is your day-to-day like as a data scientist with Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)?
There is never a typical day at CMS (cliche I know). Usually, by 6 a.m. I am reading prior research work and reviewing code or an experiment that I ran overnight. On other days I review work provided to me by other researchers. Usually, my afternoon is peppered with stakeholder meetings, reviewing the requirements of a new data project, and any presentation of updates — should I feel they are warranted and essential. Occasionally I will wax poetic with my co-workers about data, policy, and research.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The people and problems. Collaborating with brilliant and dedicated researchers and policy staff is both an honor and a privilege. There is a shared value of integrity and ethics that is prevalent in my job.
Couple that with the fact that mathematics is so pure in that it is the essence of truth. When you apply the language of mathematics to data and share this with others, it is one of the most fulfilling experiences for me.
Has anything about the position or the work surprised you?
This is not something too surprising, but working as a data scientist within a group, let alone an agency, leads to ambiguity and the need to navigate how to position yourself for success.
This is not so straightforward when the data questions are either ill-defined or require significant refinement through research. Being able to accelerate timelines while working on hard problems is sometimes overwhelming. You really need a good support team and an advocate. More concretely, projects at CMS are not always consumer-facing applications, but rather models, analyses, and visualizations that inform policy-making and decisions. This is often misaligned with the traditional criteria for “success” that USDS defines.
What’s your superpower?
Being a chameleon/shapeshifting
Can you talk about a project you’re super proud of?
Although I can’t specify the details too much, I can share that I am contributing to several projects that span demand estimation in the Medicaid population for lifeline crisis services; measurement studies on disparities in mental health diagnoses in the adolescent Medicaid population, as well as informing how we should model an individual’s future likelihood to be hospitalized because of an opioid-related treatment regimen.
We’re term-limited to no more than four years — what do you want to do after USDS?
Good question. Should I make it to year four, I may do what my colleague did after his first tour and take time away from civilization. I would spend some time traveling abroad for a few months and run a few more international marathons. Ultimately, I am going to finish my doctorate in mathematics and statistics and continue to work on health services research.
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