Regression, Classification & Clustering, Oh My!
A peer profile of Social Sentinel Data Scientist, Tom “Dr. Tom” Dinitz
Tom’s love for Vermont, aptitude for helping others, and passion for creatively finding structure in crazy, incomplete data sets make him a valuable asset to our team. He’s known around the office for his “academic curiosity” and investigative eagerness. With a degree in mathematics from Colgate University in hand, Tom pursued his PhD through Ohio State University.
When he’s not at work building our advanced machine learning models, you may find him playing board games, or hitting the slopes. Let’s get to know him a bit more…
Why did you choose data science for a career?
The skills and reasons I enjoyed math and computer science translated well to data science: coding, big picture problem solving, mathematical theory, etc. I was drawn to data science when I realized how well it combined all of those things. Math is infinitely precise and requires provable, clean answers.
However, once you venture outside of that realm into real-world data, it won’t be as tidy. I’ve always felt more decisions today should be made by looking at data. When a company asks, “What happened,” it’s important to use data to intelligently determine what the right path forward is for the business. It’s an obstacle faced by many industries today, but a lot of it is pretty fun.
Why did you join Social Sentinel?
The location and team-driven atmosphere were the most appealing aspects. I was looking for data science positions while in Ohio and saw Social Sentinel was hiring. I grew up in Hinesburg, so the chance to come back home was fantastic. After my interview, I saw an amazing opportunity to collaborate with a variety of teams throughout the company while gaining experience in my field.
What’s unique about your role?
This is my first full-time job! Although my only real comparison to this job are positions held in graduate school, I love that I have so much freedom with what direction I choose to pursue projects. Of course, the freedom goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility to make sure our models work correctly. But I like that I’m trusted with that. The breadth of tasks I have–modeling, data cleaning and processing, working with engineers, researchers, and project managers, etc.–is widespread.
Any good part-time jobs before working at Social Sentinel?
My favorite job–before Social Sentinel, of course–was with a University of Vermont program called The Vermont Math Initiative. It gave grade school teachers throughout the state a path to earn their master’s degree in mathematics without having to stop teaching. I helped out around the office and would TA for summer courses.
What’s something that your coworkers don’t know about you?
I had a day named after me in high school. When I was in kindergarten, I found out my older brother had a website, and I got insanely jealous. Even though I didn’t have anything to put on one, my dad built me a very basic site. [It’s still up!] The homepage had my name, a picture of me, and a few sentences about my hobbies at the time.
Years later, my friends found the website while we were in high school and thought it was hilarious. They took a screenshot of the homepage and posted it around school. Another friend (who clearly had a future in marketing) saw an opportunity, made a shirt with a picture of me on the front, the text from the website on the back, and sold it at school. One day a month, we had “TJD” (Tom James Dinitz) Day, and everyone who bought a shirt wore it.
What’s your favorite board game and why?
Right now, I’d say Spirit Island. It’s a cooperative game where you and up to four people play as the spirits on an island inhabited by indigenous people. Colonizers later come into the game and want to take over the island. Your role as the spirit involves working with the indigenous people to fight back while overcoming the obstacle of not being able to interact with anything directly.
I love it because you need to cooperate with your team and strategize together. It eliminates a common issue with cooperative strategy games where one person ends up taking control. Spirit Island allows you all plan out your turns back and forth–giving everyone a voice. It’s the perfect balance of challenging and engaging. Plus, each time you get to play as different spirits with different powers.
What don’t you like in a board game?
I don’t care for quiz-style games where the questions aren’t formulated for right or wrong answers. Sometimes this can be fun in party games, but often, scoring doesn’t make sense.
Which mountain are you most excited to ski this year?
Mad River Glen. My family and I would go every Sunday when I was growing up. It’s an incredible place. I skied there every year–even while going to graduate school in Ohio. Getting to go consistently this season is what I’m looking forward to the most. I’d like to get at least one day up at Jay Peak this season because I love the woods. My girlfriend, Stacy, and I talked about taking a ski trip together and may join my sister on her upcoming trip to some resorts in Japan.
Stacy and I have two cats, but they’re in Columbus, Ohio. My parents have one cat, and we had a pet rat when I was a kid. My sister and I always pushed to get a dog.
What’s your favorite part about living in Vermont?
The weather and geography. Ohio is incredibly flat, and having the elevation change is nice. I’m much happier in the cold than when it’s hot, so I love the winters here. And since I ski, having access to all the snow is great.
Who are your role models?
Both of my parents are tremendous role models. My dad is a math professor, and he’s a big part of the reason I studied it. All of my siblings are pretty math and science-focused to an extent. He’s also been a successful professor, and in some sense, I think forged that success.
My mom just retired from the Writing Center at UVM and has her PhD in English. Although I didn’t get those traits as much, I’ve always admired the way my mom interacts with people. Her interpersonal skills are amazing. I think it comes from her years of training tutors. She’s an incredibly kind, and caring person who has always been very effective at reaching people.
It’s people like Tom who help fuel the solution-based success of Social Sentinel. We’re thrilled he found us and for everything he’s contributed to our Data Science team. Look for more team profiles in future posts.