Taylor Ishisaka loves to unlock the secrets hidden in data.
There’s nothing more satisfying or rewarding, she says, than translating big data sets into clear, actionable information that communities can use to understand themselves better or tackle existing problems anew. “The world of data science has so much to offer,” said the Chaminade senior.
That passion isn’t only infectious, it’s getting noticed.
Most recently, she was part of a team that took home top honors in the inaugural data science competition at SC21, one of the biggest international conferences on high-performance computing. The competition, held over two phases in October and November 2021, was designed to give students a chance to showcase their computing, problem-solving and data analysis skills in a team dynamic.
Ishisaka, who is a Ho’oulu Scholar and Data Science major at Chaminade, said the competition started with a meet-and-greet opportunity over Zoom followed by details on the expectations for participants. She was put into a team with students from around the nation, including Washington State University and Central Texas College.
The first phase of the competition required students to perform analysis on a data set using a high-performance computing cloud. Ishisaka said the task was designed to test participants’ time management skills, teamwork, and ability to work effectively in the cloud platform.
The data set was a compilation of agricultural and livestock data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture database. Ishisaka’s team looked at crop production and fertilization data over several years, and Ishisaka created a color-coded heat map showing changes over time. A teammate, meanwhile, crafted several graphs that showed crop and soy production over specific Census years.
Ishisaka and her teammates put together a report in order to move to Phase 2, during which participants were challenged to find their own datasets to highlight problems in specific regions. Ishisaka’s team focused on Missouri data, specifically looking at data on bison populations. They took a multi-state view, tying in figures on climate and other environmental factors in their analysis.
The challenges were tough enough, but Ishisaka’s team also lost members over the course of the competition. Two didn’t show up again after the initial Zoom session. A third team member dropped off the map in Phase 2. That left the original team of five with just two members.
“As there were only two of us left in the most critical phase, my team member and I met with our mentor for hours each day discussing our progress on the project and next steps,” Ishisaka said. “We had to retrace our steps and rediscover our project purpose in order to put together our presentation.”
It was no easy task—but Ishisaka wasn’t deterred.
“After hours of putting together our presentation and rearranging everything to make sure that our story flowed, we created a product that we were proud of,” she said, adding that she stayed up all night before presentation day so she could memorize her talking points and deliver a clear message.
She delivered the presentation via Zoom with the judges and other teams all there. When everything was done, she was proud to have completed what she set out to do—and wasn’t thinking all that much about whether she’d actually be recognized for her efforts. “I was honestly surprised when we won,” she said. “I attended presentations of the other competitors and their projects were phenomenal.”
Ishisaka said she’s very happy with what she and her teammate were able to accomplish.
“I decided to keep on going throughout the competition because for one, I was representing Chaminade. And secondly, I know that my progress in the competition was a reflection of the skills and values that I learned throughout my academic journey in data science,” she said.
Ishisaka added she’s not one to leave things unfinished.
“Once I commit to a project, I am in it for the long haul,” she said.
The same goes for her commitment to data science, a major she fell into after participating in the Supporting Pacific Indigenous Computing Excellence (SPICE) Summer Institute in Summer 2019. SPICE, a partnership between Chaminade and the Texas Advanced Computer Center, gives students from all different majors and backgrounds a chance to explore data science and its many applications.
Ishisaka said that she entered the SPICE program not knowing anything about data science, “or that it even existed.” She added, “The following semester, I went to academic advising and switched my major from biochemistry to data science, and honestly it was probably one of the best choices I ever made.”