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Student Spotlight: Antonia Hellman

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February 3, 2023

Meet Antonia Hellman, a coterminal master's student in MS&E who is currently on a leave of absence from Stanford to pursue external projects.

Antonia's passion for data science in politics, as well as a desire for a broad education, led her to MS&E, where she studied computational social science. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many aspects of life to become virtual, she and her Stanford colleagues seized the opportunity and launched a startup to improve the virtual networking experience.

Below, Antonia reflects on her journey to Stanford, her experiences in MS&E, and what she's looking forward to in the future.

Can you tell me about your life before Stanford? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New York City and went to school in Manhattan. I grew up there my whole life, except one year when I was ten years old I lived in Shanghai, China, which was a cool experience because I am half Asian and half White. It’s nice to have a blend of cultures and exposure to different ways of life. I’m grateful for that; it’s shaped how I see the world and has shaped my interests as well.

How did you become interested in engineering? Did an experience or individual inspire you?

It was the way that I grew up. My father is a serial entrepreneur, so I was never pushed in one direction or another career-wise, but what he did instill in us is a way of asking questions and trying to solve problems in creative ways. I was never told that a solution that I came up with was dumb.

I spent my childhood thinking about how to build different machines and how to optimize different processes, whether they were realistic or not, and I think that mindset got me interested in engineering, to begin with. I also think it's a part of who I am. I’m somebody who appreciates the breadth of experience.

In all of the disciplines that I’ve pursued throughout my life, I think of myself as a problem solver. I think there are really important insights that you can get from solving social science problems that you can take to hard science problems, and vice versa. Having that intersection in my education is exceptionally important to me.

Why did you choose MS&E?

I like how broad MS&E is. My goal in my life and education in my 20s is to take in as many learning opportunities as possible, and I think MS&E can give me that because there are so many different tracks and different paths that you can take through the program.

Data science in politics is relatively new. The way that we make decisions is changing rapidly and people need to be able to keep up, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to equip myself with those skills and one of the reasons why I chose MS&E.

What is your area of concentration, and how did you chose it?

I’ve acquired a political science and economics degree, and I am currently an MS&E coterminal master’s student taking some time off. Within MS&E, my concentration is computational social science. So it ties into the work that I’ve done with political science and economics, but with more of a data engineering focus.

A lot of the work that I’ve done outside of the classroom has to do with Stanford: The government and Stanford Votes, specifically. I was one of the founders of the Stanford Votes initiative during my sophomore year, and it’s something that I’m extremely passionate about—getting people to register to vote and also to turn out to vote.

It’s also a very numbers-driven process, so there are a lot of opportunities to analyze progress and to find pockets of people who haven’t been contacted in the past and who may not feel like the democratic process is for them. I did a lot of work diving into voter data using Stanford’s data to figure out what made the biggest impact when it comes to things that we can do as initiatives to get people excited.

Working with that data and making decisions like that was impactful for me and changed my outlook on public service and politics. I wanted to go into MS&E with a focus on data science, social sciences, and politics, but also get a different side of the process and switch mindsets a little, because data science in politics is relatively new.

Did you have a favorite class or professor?

Intro to Computational Social Science with Professor Sharad Goel. I really loved it. It was challenging for me, and there were some group projects that I stayed up late to finish. But, it was rewarding to come out of that class and compare where I started to where I came out, in terms of my computational and coding skills.

Another favorite course was Engineering 150, called the Data Challenge Lab. It completely changed my life. It was probably the hardest and best class I’ve ever taken at Stanford by far. We met every day; we had homework every day. It was a crash course intro to R and using the tidyverse. There was a lot of work that we did in data visualization, and I took this class as a sophomore with practically no coding or data science experience. There was a steep learning curve and it was super intense, but I got so much out of it.

Do you have an idea of what you want to do after Stanford?

I still don’t know what I want to do in life, in general, but I’m currently running my own company called Toucan. It’s a video platform for more natural networking online. This was born from my experience after getting sent home from Stanford during COVID-19 and losing touch with the groups and communities that I was a part of. My co-founders and I created the platform to allow users to move seamlessly between groups and network more like you would in person at a networking event.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I am extremely grateful for the education that I received at Stanford and all the help I've received along the way, particularly when it came to starting my own business. If anyone is interested in chatting about what it takes to launch a startup, or if anyone reading this has started their own company, I would love to speak with you.

What impact do you want to make at Stanford?

Throughout my undergraduate career, I was heavily involved in Stanford in Government. In my sophomore year, I co-founded and co-directed StanfordVotes, which led to upwards of 2,000 signups on TurboVote in our first month and a half on campus.

I've seen firsthand what students can do when they set their minds on an ambitious goal. Especially with the support of the university, the possibilities for making an impact and bringing about real societal change are endless. Prior to my work on StanfordVotes, I was unaware of the power and influence that young people can have. If there's something I hope to leave students at this university with, it's the conviction that they have what it takes to make a difference.

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