Shannon Stewart

Headshot of Shannon Stewart


KU major: Cell Biology, Class of 2006

Current occupation: Senior Data Scientist, Global Fund to End Modern Slavery

Research mentors while at KU: Rob Ward

Describe the undergraduate research experience that you had while at KU:

A: I was an undergraduate researcher in Rob Ward's biology lab. Rob was a new professor at the time, and we were both at a point where we were figuring out a new professional role. He really invested in my success and saw it as a critical part of his own success. The project we developed was a classical screen that would help define some new directions for his lab's work, and it felt like a lot of responsibility. He put a lot of trust in me as a scholar.


Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research? 

A: Rob taught me everything I know about scholarly research culture. He showed me how much care goes into scientific claims, how to regard being wrong about things, and how to approach the unknown. He also showed how important it is to find supportive peers and collaborators, and how much fun it can be to have lifelong peers as you pursue an intellectual career.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative scholarship?

A: You'll get out what you put in. My research lab was my home on campus for years, and I put a lot of work in, but it really paid off. It gave me a solid grounding and, importantly, confidence in my skills and judgement when I went into a world-class Ph.D. program.


Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation?  How so?

A: All the time! Original research has two parallel goals: to discover something new and to teach the researcher how to think. This is why a Ph.D. is a doctor of philosophy, by the way, because the training is fundamentally to teach you the philosophy of knowledge and discovering new things in your field--I learned that as an undergraduate researcher. As a data scientist I use a lot of the statistics I started learning as an undergraduate researcher, but more importantly, I use experimental design principles that I learned from basic research.


Q: Many undergraduate researchers are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?

A: From the perspective of an undergraduate, the decisions you're making now seem really permanent. You may think that once you choose your major, you've defined the field you will work in for the rest of your life, or that you've put so much work in that you shouldn't change your path, even if you don't love it. I can tell you that's not true. You can do a Master's degree or Ph.D. in a totally different field if you discover a late passion! You can learn a new language, even after college, that expands your possibilities. You can convince someone to hire you into a different area--I did. It's not permanent, and it's almost never too late to change your mind.