June 8, 2021
Class of 2021: Job-ready skills propel UCalgary grad into the future of data
The rise of the internet, the development of new statistical techniques like machine learning, and improvements in computer power have hastened the vibrant union of economics and data science.
For Class of 2021 University of Calgary graduate Fetsami Araya, it’s perfect timing.
Araya, who graduates with a BA (Honours) in Economics First Class in the Faculty of Arts with a minor in data science, is helping to usher in a new era of generating economic value from data at an amazing scale.
“The new data science minor program launched in 2019 and the computer science courses available at UCalgary helped me learn the skills I needed to begin doing this kind of work,” he says.
New era of harvesting value from data
Fundamentally, economics studies how people interact with each other to produce, distribute, and consume the things we need as a society. Data science is all about using computer science and statistics to gain knowledge and insight.
Araya’s wide interest in global developments and accelerating technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), cryptocurrencies, blockchain-based payment services and applications for decentralized finance (DeFi) feed into his curiosity about how economics and data can be explored to gain insights.
He was awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship Master’s (CGSM) by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a research proposal that would mix public and private data to try and predict how improvement in AI could impact employment in Canada.
Opportunities in advanced computing
While at UCalgary, the university’s Advanced Research Computing Cluster gave Araya the opportunity to learn how to use Linux-based High Performance Computing clusters, so he could run complex code that included scientific models.
“Our regular computers don’t have enough juice to do the kinds of things ARC can do, so it was very cool being able to use it,” says Araya. “ARC is an essential asset for any research university.”
The teams of tech economists working at companies like Netflix, AirBnb, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft have been a big inspiration for Araya early in his career.
“The University of Calgary has one of the best economics programs in the country which was a big selling point for me,” he says. “I’ve got the skills to understand the work being done at the forefront of my field and my time at UCalgary has helped me get opportunities to work in industry.”
Hands-on work offers bird’s eye view of economy
Araya joins Statistics Canada this summer as part of an analyst rotational program, where over the next two years he plans to learn more about working with and managing large-scale databases, as well as getting a bird’s eye view on the state and future of the Canadian economy.
His work and research as a student intern with the Canada Energy Regulator focused on electricity transmission exports from Canada to the United States.
He developed a Python programming language package that would generate automated forecasts of electricity exports for the three largest exporting provinces in Canada — British Columbia, Quebec, and Manitoba.
Dr. Alexander Whalley, PhD, associate professor of economics and business at UCalgary, says Araya’s strong mathematical background, coupled with expertise in data science and programming, set him up to shine as a research assistant in his lab.
“Fetsami has great intuition on what economic problems matter and how to think through them,” says Whalley. “His ability to present complex ideas in simple and compelling prose is very impressive.”
Ensures others have a voice in technologies
Araya, whose family is from Eritrea in Eastern Africa, is a multilingual, socially conscious advocate for ensuring underrepresented people and groups have a voice in the future.
“We must always ask of every technological advance, who is excluded and who does it serve,” he says. “I want to understand tech and get it to people in my communities to help guide policy and help inform our decisions.”
As a director with The Society for Undergrads in Economics at UCalgary, a group that allows students in economics to meet each other, share resources and build their careers, he helped to organize events.
“Helping students see the possibilities in the private sector, public sector and academia was my favourite part,” says Araya, who has also participated in the mentorship program of the Black Professionals in Tech Network.
In the future, Araya hopes to be a data scientist, leading projects that involve the development and deployment of large-scale machine learning models.
“The next step for me is getting better at the engineering side of things, including cloud computing and managing large databases,” says Araya, who also just finished an MA in economics at the University of Toronto.