Jyoti Shankar

    November 08, 2018

    “Statistics is an absolutely mind-blowing, wonderful subject that needs to be taught with color,” Jyoti Shankar, Principal Data Scientist at Indigo says, sitting in front of me with two different colored shoes. One orange, one blue. “Indigo colors,” she quips, kicking up her left foot to offer a clearer view of the decorative perforations and serrations along the orange’s toe cap. The shoes add vibrancy to Jyoti’s otherwise natty palette of navys and greys, like two separate exclamation points on a sentence free from punctuation, breathless and declarative.

    “I bought these shoes on my third day here,” she says. “I searched with the hex codes from the company’s logo. Color drives a lot of my decisions and understandings, in a way.”

    Color informed Jyoti’s first encounter with the microbiome, in the fourth year of her doctoral program, when she went to hear a talk. The speaker, Ruth Ley, was presenting on microbiomes plotted across the animal kingdom, the singularity and overlap in their compositions. The microbiome, at this point, seven-and-a-half years ago, was a burgeoning field of study; Ley, an early intellectual pioneer; Jyoti, a student looking for a distraction from her dissertation.

    Jyoti’s doctoral field was epidemiology, the study of the distribution and determinants of disease. Intrigue in this discipline had emerged during her year spent practicing medicine in Delhi, India, the city where she both grew up and received her license. Jyoti remembers delivering over a hundred babies during that time span, mostly during twilight hours, while also sitting down with patients to discuss pre- and post-natal care.

    Outside of those tasks, the overall systematic approach of medical life, although necessary, did not offer Jyoti the consistent problem-solving she craved. Following the literature, she began researching a pattern, similarities between the onset of breast cancer in individuals living in Northern India and African Americans in the United States. She left the practice, moved to the United States, and attended the University of Rochester and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute to study the statistics behind the phenomena.

    But after three years, Jyoti wondered when the studying would end. Not to mention that she found her interests beginning to drift from the study of the disease itself to the statistical methodology used to track disease. “The patterns and analysis behind the disease captivated me,” she says.

    Jyoti arrived to Ley’s presentation at another major intellectual crossroads, exhausted from the rigors of the PhD program, and fascinated by the statistical models used to contextualize sets of data. She was primed for the presentation’s central visual, a color-coded table with hundreds of microbes cataloged and correlated to dozens of animals. Jyoti marveled at the kaleidoscopic display, feeling as if she were in “a dream in a wild, wild west.”

    “What I was looking at, the idea of it, made so much sense,” she says. Her previous immersions in genomics fostered only despondency, she explained, the idea “that you cannot change who you are.” But the world of the microbiome, “in all its glory,” says exactly the opposite. Understand the collections of bacteria, germs, and fungi; authorize change. Hidden under the colors, Jyoti knew, were “the numbers,” waiting to be “explored, and modeled, and understood.”

    A post-doc was spent at the J. Craig Venter Institute studying the microbiomes of humans, mice, and even bananas. Jyoti then moved to Massachusetts, worked for a pharmaceutical company in the Cambridge Innovation Center – the same building that harbored Indigo’s initial headquarters. But this is only a neat backstory, as Jyoti did not end up hearing about Indigo until reading aTechCrunch article on the company, after Indigo had moved to Charlestown. Microbiome for plants? Jyoti’s interest was piqued.

    Indigo line break

    If each mismatched shoe is representative of its respective pair, then both have held up well over the year-and-a-half Jyoti has been walking to and from Indigo, and between her tens of daily meetings. In past months, these have involved discussions around "CropTracker," a data collection and visualization system Jyoti and her cross-disciplinary team built to understand where Indigo microbial treated seed is planted, how harvests are performing, and where they end up. “End-to-end traceability,” Jyoti notes, “is a function of good data practices.”

    Concurrently, to analyze recent wheat harvest data with satellite technology, Jyoti served as the principal data scientist, fitting a model to predict yields. And now, Jyoti spends her days coding for and working with agronomy and product teams to develop the ideation behind a future platform, one that aims to take the data from CropTracker and make it actionable for agronomists. This new platform would allow agronomists to provide growers with real-time acumen, enabling conversations around small changes on the farm that could provide substantial results.

    Jyoti shifts her feet and leans forward, showing off those company colors, explaining that if Indigo expects to gain the trust of growers – individuals working off of generations of collected, foundational knowledge – the company’s data science team has to be “very targeted, very comprehensive” in how it builds its models. She says, “We have to help agronomists and growers make decisions that are grounded in science and numbers.”

    Jyoti is prepared to lend her analytical skill set to any employee tackling a statistical problem. This, coupled with her drive to accelerate the rate at which products get built, iterated, and accepted, while always “ensuring alignment with the rest of the data team,” leads her to rely on the guidance of a variety of personnel, all of whom Jyoti describes as “spirit guides.” Her commitment to, and appreciation for people is central to her work, a principle she developed when practicing medicine.

    “For people to remember you,” she says, “you ought to have helped them in some way. You ought to have impacted their life. This is the spirit of medicine. And it’s the spirit I work on every single day here.”


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