Independence, critical thinking and questioning were encouraged in my family. I fondly recall healthy debates around the family dinner table, where strong opinions and tough questions were always welcomed. This foundation allowed me to forge my path, making my own choices at each step.
I was born in Jo’burg, the last of three children. Big thunderclouds, swimming until the afternoon lightning arrived, the lush green of summer and frosty grass in winter are some of my early recollections from early childhood.
When I was ten my little world changed – my family (parents, siblings, four dogs and two tortoises) made the big move down to Cape Town. With the move came a new school and I started utterly enjoying maths, science and biology. Science came naturally to me – my Dad is a geologist – and by high school I was reading popular science books in my spare time and asking a multitude of biology and science-related questions (unsurprisingly, the high school syllabus didn’t have the answers). Living in Cape Town meant spending every weekend walking on the beaches, bodyboarding, hiking in the mountains and appreciating the diverse fynbos.
My folks had always placed emphasis on education and studying further and, with an aspiration to be a forensic scientist, heading straight to UCT was the obvious step. During first year I was exposed to the foundations of science, scientific thinking and a host of fascinating topics like desiccation tolerance, the origin of life, cellular functioning and mechanisms of evolution. The forensic science plans were soon left behind and I headed into plant biology, relishing projects that combined several disciplines – biochemistry, functional ecology, systematics and ecology – and involved mathematical modeling and statistics. I majored in biochemistry and botany and went on to complete my Honors in botany, focusing on form and function in Proteas.
At no point during these years did it occur to me to consider what type of job I’d get (or be able to get) later on. I had my first taste of a job (besides odd varsity jobs) in 2008 working as a teaching assistant on a study abroad program based in Kruger National Park. Park life was beyond idyllic – sunsets at Lake Panic, early morning game drives, learning the various vegetation types and honing my skills in plant and insect identification. Designing and running research projects and trying to collect data while avoiding herds of elephant and buffalo are some of my best memories from that time.
The year away from varsity made me hungry for more of a challenge and I began my Masters in 2009. My field of research was in evolutionary biology, studying plant traits and adaptation over time in Restios (the thatch reed is one of about 300 species of restio). It was during this time that I gravitated towards data, coding and machine learning. Mostly self-taught, writing code to solve problems was intensely rewarding. By the end of my Masters two major reasons led me to move away from academia. I’d become disenchanted with a potential career in academia and I wanted to work with data to solve current, real problems.
My data and statistical skills were thankfully transferable and I started a job as a data analyst for a geo-spatial data company in Jo’burg. Work was satisfying because results from my statistical models were actually used! Over the year I carefully studied how businesses were using data and scientific methods in how they made decisions. This led me to start Ixio Analytics, a data science company that solves business problems using data. I love constantly testing new methods and techniques, learning from other data scientists and solving real-world problems with data.
I feel very fortunate to have always been able to follow my passions, without thinking too much about the practicalities and outcomes (like getting a job!). My wonderful, supportive folks gave me the space to dream, follow my heart, make my own decisions and I now have a job I wake up every day wanting to do.
Megan is the Chief Scientist at Ixio Analytics. You will have the opportunity to meet Megan personally at Talenttalks Africa 2017 as she presents “10 Things to Ask a Data Scientist : How Analytics is being Applied in the Talent Space”