The Power of Intention:
a Journey from Physics to Data Science
Daria Satco | Photonics & Quantum Materials Alumna | DS Lead at MegaFon
Meet Daria Satco: Data Science Lead at MegaFon, Skoltech alumna, and thought leader in the Data Science community. Her path towards her current role hasn't been straightforward, but it was surely intentional.

Read Dasha's True Story to find out how she navigated her BSc and MSc studies in physics, a whirlwind of an exchange in Japan and a life-changing switch from science to industry. Enjoy!
before Skoltech
I am from Moldova, but most of my academic experience has been in Russia. At the time of my application to undergraduate studies, I was torn between studying management or pursuing a technical field. Because I was an international student applying to Russian universities, I had to carefully consider the possible opportunities and outcomes after graduation.

My parents, who are physics and mathematics teachers, gave me a wise piece of advice: it's easier to transition from a technical subject into management than the other way around. Plus, having a technical background will give me an upper hand as a manager. So that helped me make up my mind and I enrolled into the Physics BSc program at St.Petersburg State University (SPBU).

My time at SPBU was great. I first studied Magnetic Resonance Imaging and later switched to Quantum Physics. I was a really active student, so by my 3rd year of studies I had an impressive research and conference portfolio. At that time I began to look into PhD and Master's programs abroad, and landed two summer internships thanks to my active position and experience at SPBU. The first internship was at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and the second one was at CERN, a European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the world's largest and most respected centers for scientific research. These internships gave me a chance to explore data modeling and gain applied skills in programming (C++, Fortran), which was the first time I began to consider these fields for my future career path.
why Skoltech?
Having this international scientific experience gave me a more objective look at Russian science. I realized that the scientific arena in Russia is actually very rich (based on various indexes and research rankings), so pursuing a scientific career here may even be a better, more strategic decision than starting fresh in a new country.

I learned about Skoltech from a fellow participant at a scientific conference in St. Petersburg. It was funny, he actually wasn't a student but promoted it so much I couldn't resist looking into it. Skoltech attracted me for several reasons:

  • A huge international community of students and professors;
  • English as the primary language of the program
  • Exchange and academic mobility programs
  • Scholarships
  • Startup culture

I also thought hard about my next steps as a scientist. I already mentioned that as an international student there's very little room for mistakes and pauses: you have to think ahead even for just the basic formalities. For example, your visa depends on your residency status.

So at the time of my application to Skoltech I was very conscious about the program I'd be applying to. I wanted to stay in science but become closer to industry to have a choice in the end to move further with research or switch to business. Because traditional physics is more of a research-oriented direction, I considered all of the practical experience in data modeling and programming from my BSc studies and internships. So the optimal choice for me was a Master's program in Photonics & Quantum Materials.

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highlights from my Master's at Skoltech
I had some of the best times at Skoltech. It was a great experience that ultimately helped me become who I am today, both professionally and personally.

When I think back to my time as a student here, I remember a few things:

  1. A high concentration of incredibly qualified faculty. Professors are super intelligent, experienced researchers, you always want to be around them. I was in awe from almost every lecture I've attended and never felt that a subject was just to earn some credits.
  2. An intense schedule. We had 4-5 classes per day and very challenging homework. Though it was hard at the time, I realize now that this experience was great for learning diligence and endurance.
  3. Diverse curriculum. This one played a big role in my development because I had the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and take classes beyond physics. By diversifying my curriculum with programming and data science, I got complementing skills that ultimately shaped my career path.
  4. Energy and proactivity. People were always ready to help you, give advice, invite you as a team member in some extracurricular activities, and work together on projects.
  5. Fully equipped laboratories. I worked at the Laboratory of Nanomaterials which has everything to support students in our research and thesis. I worked with extremely smart colleagues who were inspired by their own work and always motivated me. My research advisor Professor Albert Nasibulin always pushed in the right direction. We also had a nice tradition of team building activities, where I had my first and greatest experience in laser tag:)
  6. The campus. I really liked being on campus. It's modern, comfortable, and has everything you need to both study and chill with friends after classes.
  7. Student culture and support. It really helps that your student journey is supported by the Skoltech staff. You always feel like you are guided in your academic and career path, you are informed of all your options and have someone to talk to if you're unsure which path to pursue. The staff really care about your success.
academic exchange in Japan
The biggest highlight of my studies at Skoltech is my academic mobility experience in Japan. My research advisor Prof. Nasibulin connected me with one of the few leaders in my field of studies – Professor Richiiro Saito at Tohoku University. I had to pass several interviews to be accepted as a visiting student, but it was so worth it.

I spent 3 months in the city of Sendai, and it was an extreme cultural and academic experience. Sendai is not "an international" city, very few people speak English. It was also challenging to make friends in such a short amount of time.

Nevertheless, my exchange experience was a success. My group published a paper with one of the most well-known and respected scientists in my field of studies. We did it in just 3 months. It is still hard to believe that this was possible. Probably, Prof. Saito was one of the strongest product managers I've ever met (if you can consider a research paper as a product, and I would say, you can!).

Also, I got incredible practical experience that shaped my professional path onward. My outcome of the exchange was a working Fortran code that helps to model plasmon excitations.

academic exchange in Japan
The biggest highlight of my studies at Skoltech is my academic mobility experience in Japan. My research advisor Prof. Nasibulin connected me with one of the few leaders in my field of studies – Professor Richiiro Saito at Tohoku University. I had to pass several interviews to be accepted as a visiting student, but it was so worth it.

I spent 3 months in the city of Sendai, and it was an extreme cultural and academic experience. Sendai is not "an international" city, very few people speak English. It was also challenging to make friends in such a short amount of time.

Nevertheless, my exchange experience was a success. My group published a paper with one of the most well-known and respected scientists in my field of studies. We did it in just 3 months. It is still hard to believe that this was possible. Probably, Prof. Saito was one of the strongest product managers I've ever met (if you can consider a research paper as a product, and I would say, you can!).

Also, I got incredible practical experience that shaped my professional path onward. My outcome of the exchange was a working Fortran code that helps to model plasmon excitations.
Career in Data Science & ML
By the end of my MSc studies at Skoltech, I was at the crossroads of choosing between pursuing a PhD at Skoltech or starting a career in the industry. It was a tough choice, but several factors helped me make my decision.

Over the course of my studies, I had an amazing research experience. But I was curious about working with tangible products in the industry. In science, the results of your work will become "visible" only after a couple (optimistic) to tens (realistic) of years. I was eager to do something with a shorter go-to-market timeline.

My early thoughts were to combine PhD studies and industrial work, but my research advisor pushed me to make a choice. Now I see it was a wise push! When you are focused on your job, you grow and succeed much faster than when you're trying to sit on two chairs.

Having the flexibility and freedom to quit a job was a big factor, too. I kept in mind an option to quit a job and pursue a PhD in case I won't like it. I took that chance instead of entering my PhD because in case you quit PhD studies, it's much more depressing than the other way round.

On top of all that, I wanted to overcome one specific personal challenge: get a job offer from one of the BIG3 consulting firms, McKinsey. I've been wanting to try my hand in consulting for a while, but couldn't get through the selection process for the longest time. Finally, I participated in a McKinsey hackathon, after which my teammates and I got the opportunity to interview for an internship position.

Soon after I joined McKinsey as Advanced Analytics intern. Remember how I got all that programming and ML experience at Skoltech classes and my internships? This is where it led me! Though a lot of the internship involved learning by doing, the strong foundation of statistics, ML and programming skills I got at Skoltech definitely helped me to pass smoothly to a full-time employee.
Data Science Lead at MegaFon
I spent almost 3 years at McKinsey, getting solid experience in customer analytics and recommendation systems. This experience became a springboard for me to move to MegaFon as the Data Science team lead. Last month I got promoted to Head of ML. Currently I am leading 4 teams and 6+ projects in Data Science and Analytics.

Now I build ML solutions for business. My field of expertise is Customer Value Management – a system which helps personalize interaction with a customer at every point of his lifetime with a company. I fell in love with this topic during my McKinsey time. The telecommunication industry is extremely convenient to build models and run advanced analytics for customer databases, since it's huge (20+ mln customers) and data is really big.

Our team is strong and mature, so we see an opportunity to shift a bit more focus to RnD and complex pipelines. We have already passed the phase of proof of concept and work more on optimization, robustness, flexibility and accuracy of our solutions. Also, we started to experiment with applications of LLM in different business cases.

I'm growing as as a ML brand leader, too. Last week I organized a Data Science meetup on the LLM business applications topic, where we discussed examples and potential of LLM-based solutions with the Data Science community.

Data Science Lead at MegaFon
I spent almost 3 years at McKinsey, getting solid experience in customer analytics and recommendation systems. This experience became a springboard for me to move to MegaFon as the Data Science team lead. Last month I got promoted to Head of ML. Currently I am leading 4 teams and 6+ projects in Data Science and Analytics.

Now I build ML solutions for business. My field of expertise is Customer Value Management – a system which helps personalize interaction with a customer at every point of his lifetime with a company. I fell in love with this topic during my McKinsey time. The telecommunication industry is extremely convenient to build models and run advanced analytics for customer databases, since it's huge (20+ mln customers) and data is really big.

Our team is strong and mature, so we see an opportunity to shift a bit more focus to RnD and complex pipelines. We have already passed the phase of proof of concept and work more on optimization, robustness, flexibility and accuracy of our solutions. Also, we started to experiment with applications of LLM in different business cases.

I'm growing as as a ML brand leader, too. Last week I organized a Data Science meetup on the LLM business applications topic, where we discussed examples and potential of LLM-based solutions with the Data Science community.
Bringing it all together
I often reflect on my academic path and how it has helped me get to where I am now. I don't think I wouldn't change anything, really: every stage of my learning was thoughtful and intentional. I am thankful for every experience, skill and piece of knowledge I've gained along the way.

Thinking of Skoltech specifically, it has helped me:

  • Develop my communication skills, which is crucial in any field of knowledge;
  • Get a business-oriented mindset, think about how my work can be applied and make a difference;
  • Stay in the mode of continuous competition and movement forward starting from admission and then during courses/exchange/exams;
  • Meet inspiring people and role models I look up to this day.

So what's my advice to future students and scientists? Try to get the most out of each period of time. Don't rush to skip or parallel things, university period is a wonderful time you have once and then you'll have your entire life to switch jobs, get new skills, play different roles.

Skoltech gives you so many opportunities to learn, explore, practice, meet people. Take it and you'll never regret it in the future, because it is a unique experience you get only in that place in that particular time.
and now about Skoltech
We are Skoltech – a new international English-speaking STEM university that was founded by the group of world-renowned scientists in 2011 in Moscow, Russia. In just 8 years, we united dozens of researchers and globally renowned professors, built a stunning campus, set up world-class labs and made it to the top 100 young universities in the Nature Index. Read more >>
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