Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Jason Sundram

Name: Jason Sundram
Age: 33
Occupation:  Senior Data Scientist at PayPal
Education (UR and additional):  BA in Mathematics, University of Rochester, 2001
Current city/state of residence: Somerville, MA
Community activities: violinist in local chamber music groups and orchestras, photographer at Boston Photography Center, participant in Music Hack Day and Data Without Borders weekend-long events when they occur.

When and how did you choose your major?

I chose to major in math at the end of my sophomore year. I had taken a bunch of math and physics classes, and had originally declared a physics major. But I was inspired by my math professor Naomi Jochnowitz to want to prove (and therefore understand) everything. It changed the way I thought about the world, and made me decide math was the major for me. It was a good choice for me: math opens a lot of doors.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I spent a lot of time playing violin in the University’s Chamber and Symphony Orchestras, as well as time in the music department playing chamber music. Access to great coaching and a fantastic music library at Eastman also helped further my musical development as someone not majoring in music. I currently still play a lot, and it is a fantastic way to meet interesting people from all walks of life.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I analyze and visualize large data sets for PayPal. Data visualization requires a combination of analytical skills and an artistic sensibility that aren’t often found together, so it’s a cool niche. It’s also a lot of fun. Finding this career hasn’t been a straight path. Since I graduated, my formula for finding jobs has been “programming + domain specific knowledge = something fun”. The domains I have worked in include physics, photography, music, and now, visual arts.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

The single year of computer science classes (CS 171 and 172) that I took have paved the way for my entire career. Lack of fear of math, more than any particular course I took in the math department, has also served me quite well. I’ve worked with experts in a lot of fields, from ecology to physics, and have been able to understand and implement their ideas due to that mathematical literacy and fluency.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

When you love what you do, finding that balance isn’t as hard; work doesn’t seem like as much of an imposition. But having activities that I also love outside of work forces me to make time for them. I have found myself showing up to work after having already been awake for five hours, so that I could drive to the coast to photograph sunrise over the water.

What advice do you have for current students?

You will be happiest in your career when you can do something you enjoy. And the job you might have ten years after graduating may not even exist or have a name now. Combining your passions with a solid skill set may take you much further than doing something that seems reliable that you don’t care about. Take a year of programming courses; they will change your life. And take enough math to not be afraid of it; math is everywhere!