Alumni Spotlight on Emma Ideal

March 26, 2024

Yale Physics alum Emma Ideal, Ph.D. ‘15 is now a data science & engineering leader at Netflix based in Los Angeles, CA.  We asked Dr. Ideal a few questions about her Yale experience and career journey; see below for the interview.

What kind of research did you do in the department? And where?

In the early 2010’s the hunt for [a new fundamental particle called] the Higgs Boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was on. Large teams of scientists from around the world came together to uncover more about the fundamental make-up of our Universe. High-energy proton-proton pairs collided in the LHC’s ATLAS detector, creating showers of particles that leave trails in the apparatus before quickly decaying.

In 2012, the discovery of the Higgs Boson was simultaneously announced by the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaborations in three Higgs decay channels: Higgs to W pair, Z pair, and photon pair. My thesis, “A Search for the Standard Model Higgs Boson Produced in Association with a Vector Boson and Decaying to a Hadronically-Decaying Tau Pair at ATLAS” (advisor Sarah Demers), focused on discovering the Higgs through its decay to a tau pair in association with a W or Z boson, which is more challenging to confidently parse from the ATLAS detector because significant background noise can fake the decay signature. By 2014, we hadn’t collected enough data and at high enough energies to discover the WH or ZH decay to taus; this signature was only announced as observed in late 2023 using data from Run 2 of the LHC (2015-2018 at 13 TeV).

What kind of research are you doing now?

After graduating, I completed a postdoc program called Insight Data Science, after which I spent 3 years as a data scientist at Facebook. I joined Netflix in 2019, and now lead a team of stunning analytics engineers. We develop metrics, perform data analyses, and build data visualizations and tooling that inform how we plan and manage content production to continuously deliver all the thrilling shows and movies you see on Netflix.

Netflix operates at unprecedented scale, delivering content to 260+ million members across 190+ countries in 30+ languages. At Netflix, we believe stories can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere; just as there is diversity in the audiences we reach with our content, there is diversity and nuance in how we produce that content around the world.

Data sheds light on how well we’re managing content operations beginning from the time we receive a script through to the time a member presses play on their device. For example, we can build metrics or do analyses that indicate how well we’re managing production schedules or help us plan for the myriad resources e.g., stages, cameras, lighting equipment, etc. we need to deliver our global content slate. Bringing scripts to life on screen is an inherently creative process, so bringing data to the table in this context is itself both a science and an art. It’s so rewarding to operate at this intersection — to navigate (and support my team in navigating) the ambiguity that this implies and ultimately observe our members find joy in what we’ve worked hard to launch on service.

Can you describe what you do on a usual day?

As a data science and engineering leader, my days are spent connecting with others, including my direct reports, peer data science leaders, business stakeholders, and product partners. These recurring touchpoints help me stay on top of how the business is evolving, allow me to serve as a thought partner for my business and product partners, and identify what’s important now/next/later so my team can deliver continuous impact through their work.

An important part of the Netflix culture is “context not control”; as leaders, our role is to provide all the context our team members need to make effective decisions around, for example, what projects they prioritize, how they get their work done, who they work with, etc. We don’t control and micromanage our stunning colleagues!

I also spend a lot of my day-to-day writing and reading — gathering business context, writing data strategy, asking questions and providing ideas to my team as they’re forming project briefs or delivering analyses in Google docs or slide decks.

My direct reports are individual contributors (or “ICs”) that spend much of their day-to-day connecting with partners to prioritize, plan, iterate/collect feedback, and socialize their work. Technical execution can involve authoring data pipelines and writing data audits; cleaning data; pulling data into a python notebook to run models, make charts, and prototype metrics; or building Tableau or plotly dashboards to bring insights back to our production stakeholders.

How did your time in Yale Physics prepare you for what you are doing now?

While I don’t directly use physics in my job anymore, my time at Yale Physics taught me that I can solve hard, ambiguous problems, collaborating effectively with large teams of global scientists to deliver novel insights. While the domain is different, this is precisely what I do in my role at Netflix.

Physics taught me to be gritty; I remember spending months in the physics building white-boarding a novel method to model a complex background to my Higgs analysis. I spent a month or so after defending my approach to the broader collaboration, which ran counter to the status quo method (that had a large contingency backing it). Ultimately, after many meetings and presentations, I successfully convinced a couple key collaborators of my derivation, and it was adopted. This kind of grittiness, conviction in perspective, and influence are key skills I tap into on virtually a daily basis in my current job. Yale Physics provided the perfect environment for incubating not only my data and scientific curiosity but my collaboration and leadership skills, too. I’m forever grateful to my advisor Sarah Demers, my physics peers, and the CERN community for this.

What inspires and/or excites you about your research?

I’ve mentioned ambiguity a lot so far—we face this all the time in our work at Netflix—this can manifest as ambiguity in what to work on and why, how to work on it, and what precisely we should deliver and how back to our business and product stakeholders to land impact.

Another aspect of our company culture is Freedom & Responsibility; namely, we are given a ton of freedom in what we work on and how we get our work done, and we have the responsibility to operate with good judgment and make well-informed decisions. I love getting to tackle hard, ambiguous, technical problems, while being given the freedom and responsibility to chart my own course (giving my stellar direct reports the opportunity to do the same). I also love that my job is about enabling incredible creative stories from around the world to find their voice on the screen. The moments of joy, community, inclusion, etc. our members experience through our content is well worth all the effort I put into my job.

Are you involved in any outreach, and if so, what, and why is it important to do outreach as a professional scientist?

In my time at Yale Physics, I co-published a book called “Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science” with fellow grad student Rhiannon Meharchand from Michigan State University. The book is a compilation of auto-biographical essays by women scientists intended to inspire the next generation of young girls and rising scientists to consider a STEM path for themselves. While it was one mechanism I saw to reach and potentially influence a larger audience, I also sought outreach opportunities within the local Yale community — for example, mentoring physics undergraduate students and communicating about my Higgs research to non-technical audiences in the New Haven community.

I’ve always believed deeply in supporting and enabling scientists (whether physicists, or now, data scientists!) coming up behind me to have fruitful academic and career experiences, as one way to pay forward the support and guidance I received throughout my journey. I’ve also recently participated on the panel of Yale’s STEM PhD Career Pathways — such a rewarding and fun experience connecting in real-time with current grad students and hearing what’s top of mind for them.

My passion for mentorship is what fueled my path toward people leadership at Netflix where my scientific outreach today is focused on directly supporting and coaching my team to do their best work. The reward I find in my current role is no longer about delivering scientific insight myself, but about enabling and empowering my team members to seek and deliver that impact themselves. I now have the privilege of taking the leadership skills I developed at Yale Physics and honed in my time after and using them to scale my personal impact through my team’s efforts.

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