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Data Science turns humanities student onto STEM

Headshot of Deja Watkins
Photo courtesy of Deja Watkins

When she first arrived at Mason, a degree in STEM was furthest from Deja Watkins’ mind. She chose Mason for its Foreign Languages programs and affiliation with the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a nonprofit organization that supports the teaching and learning of the Chinese language and culture in the United States. Watkins studied Mandarin in high school and wanted to continue. Yet, as a first-year student, there were still several Mason core requirements she needed to complete in addition to her language courses. 

To fill the information technology and computing requirement, Watkins selected to take CDS 130: Computing for Scientists, which covers the use of computers to solve practical scientific problems. Don’t let the course title mislead you. Any Mason student can take CDS 130 to understand how data connects to their field of study. Watkins said she was surprised by how much she enjoyed the class and how well she did. So, when a professor mentioned that she could take on a Computational and Data Sciences (CDS) major or minor, Watkins went all in with the major.

It didn’t take long for Watkins to excel in the program. By her second year, she earned a role in CDS STARS—Student Teachers and Research Assistants. STARS serve as members of CDS’ instructional force, assisting students with their homework and course materials for the Computing for Scientists course. By senior year, she served as the lead TA for the CDS 101 and 102 courses.

Through her work as a TA, Watkins got to know many of the Department’s faculty members, those she knew from class and those she did not. “It’s fun seeing how passionate they are about their job,” she said. It’s not just about teaching, but about passing on knowledge in a field that is still developing. Many of them have different industry experiences and they bring those different experiences to the classroom.”

Though majoring in CDS, Watkins continued to also pursue her BA in Foreign Languages with a concentration in Chinese. She spent her entire junior year in China to immerse herself in the language and culture. She received an award from the Confucius Institute U.S. Center for helping build educational bridges between the U.S. and China.

In recognition of her academic rigor, she received a Dean’s Challenge Scholarship from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2019 and was a member of both the Foreign Language Honor Society and the International Honor Society for those who have studied abroad.

What advice would she give students who don’t know what they want to study?

“It’s okay to not know what you want to do right away,” she said “But also know that subjects can blend together in unobvious ways and open doors to a number of interesting jobs.”

Watkins graduated from Mason in May 2020 and currently works as a Data Scientist Consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton.

Learn more about the CDS STARS program.

Watkins’ combination of humanities and sciences runs in the family. She is related to the inimitable Katherine Johnson who earned her degree in both Mathematics and French. She would famously go on to become a mathematician for NASA and help put a man on the moon.