Big dreams to big data: ACES alum shares her path from crops to data science

Jarai Carter poses for a picture next too a large tractor

Jarai Carter didn’t know she could combine her passions for big data and agriculture when she enrolled as a crop sciences major in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But today, as a senior manager of data science at John Deere, Carter leverages her interests to develop products with engineering solutions to make farming more efficient, sustainable, and profitable.

Carter’s path to her dream job started during her senior year of high school. There, she learned about an opportunity to complete an internship within the Education to Careers and Professions Program. As an intern, Carter frequented the Illinois campus, where she studied corn genetics in Stephen Moose’s research group. Inspired by this experience, Carter applied to Illinois and enrolled as a crop sciences major.

“I definitely learned a lot with my internship experience. I’m not from a farming background, so choosing to study crop sciences added a lot to my educational enrichment,” Carter said. “With the crop science program at ACES, you get introduced to a lot of different aspects of agriculture: farming, research, the agriculture industry, and so much more. It was all these elements that helped me find my career path and then guided me on how to apply that knowledge at work.” 

Carter also participated in the James Scholar Honors Program, an academic experience that led her to complete an independent research project she presented at the undergraduate research symposium. However, Carter, an Illinois Soybean Association scholar, was highly involved outside the classroom, too, writing and reporting for the Field and Furrow club while also serving as the Ag in the Classroom Chair for the Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority

“My advice for new students in ACES is to definitely get involved with any RSO that’s either related to your future career or of some interest to you. Participating in these extra things outside of class and being involved with your space, whether it’s a leadership role or not, was really valuable for me. I always encourage students to start with the small things that will lead to the bigger picture. Whether you’re just developing your skills, understanding the basics of a research project, or bonding with others in your community, all those experiences will help you later on in life,” Carter said.

Carter also attended and competed at the American Society of Agronomy’s annual meeting through the student chapter. There, she received a second-place award in the speech competition and a third-place award in the manuscript contest, which eventually became her first published article. Carter’s article, which analyzed the social media accounts of two different agriculture companies, led to readers reaching out to her. This interaction is what sparked her interest in pursuing the technological side of the ag industry.

“As I got closer to completing my undergraduate graduation, I started to research the graduate degrees that would allow me to explore technology,” Carter said. “Informatics was the most interesting to me since I was able to design my own curriculum and combine my agriculture knowledge with my new passion.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in crop sciences in 2013, Carter pursued a doctorate in informatics from the School of Information Sciences at Illinois. 

While studying as a graduate student and serving as a teaching assistant, Carter also began working as an intern at John Deere, later becoming a full-time data scientist and eventually a senior manager of data science.

“Most of my time is focused on the production side of things at John Deere, helping design personalized experiences for customers using our digital products. Our team assists other scientists and engineers make decisions about changing design for better overall efficiency, whether it’s for technology or a digital product,” Carter said. “But I also have a hand in working with product managers and user experience employees by developing predictive models that navigate customer behavior on the business side.”

But Carter’s job doesn’t stop there. She often finds herself working with student interns, and as a team leader and ACES alumna, Carter strives to help others follow their interests and find their community.

“For me, it was a natural fit to do the practical data science work and prepare others to become successful data practitioners. One thing I have always enjoyed about agriculture is that the work in this area is highly practical and has visible benefits to all people — those on the farming side and those on the consumer side,” Carter said. “It is a great feeling to work with students, knowing I can help everyone involved, including guiding them to be their best selves and pass the torch so they can help others in the future, too.”

Although Carter put together her own set of credentials, now students can enroll in the Computer Science + Crop Science major from freshman year, streamlining the path to careers like Carter’s.

Story Source(s)