Surange uses knowledge in art, information science to improve society through data

Niharika Surange

MS/IM student Niharika Surange is a painter and a data scientist. The roots of this improbable mixture of art and science can be traced back to her childhood home of Indore, India, a city rich in culture and natural beauty. Surange grew up surrounded by waterfalls, mountains, and rivers. She was also surrounded by a million people who each contribute to the city's diverse culture, heritage, and food scene.

She wasn't always drawn to a career in data science; like many children around the world, she initially wanted to work in the same occupation as her parent.

"My mother is a teacher and social worker, and she has always motivated me to do something for society, so I used to teach students basic mathematics, computer, and science in slum areas of our cities," Surange said. "My mother said that we should use our degree, knowledge, and education to contribute toward the betterment of our society. When I was younger, I wanted to become a teacher, as I love to share my knowledge and learn from others' experiences."

However, as Surange progressed through school, her interest in computers and technology grew. 

"I vividly recall my passion for technology in high school," she said. "The immense scope and my ardent passion for computers prompted me to take it up as my undergraduate course [major]."

Undergraduate interests lead to iSchool

During her junior year at SD Bansal College of Technology, she began dabbling with Python, data analytics, database management systems, and machine learning. These modules would become her gateway to data science and pursuing a master's in information management from the University of Illinois. 

"The iSchool has a strong faculty," Surange said. "The professors are always there to help you, guide you, and show you the right career path."

She also appreciates the iSchool's flexible curriculum and wide range of electives that align with her interests in text mining, information modeling, and business intelligence. She said the instructors have created engaging course experiences that mix theory with hands-on experience. 

For example, she is enrolled in Applied Business Research (IS 514) taught by Associate Professor Yoo-Seong Song. Class assignments include real-life scenarios to improve in-depth knowledge of information consulting. During class, graduate students have biweekly meetings with clients to develop business solutions and marketing strategies around a given problem. 

"This setting gives us a chance to study a business and, at the same time, implement what we have learned in class," Surange said. "I've found myself more confident and prepared since I have experienced this industry work culture. I think it will definitely help me excel in my career."

Using analytics to solve societal problems

Her mother's ethos—and now Surange's—to improve society remains unchanged. She is still driven to help others through her work.

"I enjoy working with huge datasets and finding insights that can create an impact in the real world," Surange said. "I performed an analysis on a dataset of 'Crime against Women in India', and this project acquainted me with how tapping into data and analytics can help understand and resolve issues plaguing society."

In her analysis on crime against women in India, Surange decided to scrutinize data taken from a government-authorized source. She cleaned the data, then segmented the crime rate at the city and state levels. She used a variety of programs throughout her analysis, including Python, Jupyter Notebook, MS Excel, and SQL Queries. 

"My analysis reflected that cities with the highest illiteracy rate recorded the highest number of crimes against women, and I deduced that education is the only way to reduce such crimes and empower women," she said.

Science mixed with art 

That improbable mix of art and science? Maybe it's not so improbable after all. 

Two iSchool courses—data storytelling and data visualization—have helped Surange learn how to translate data into a visual language that everyone can understand. 

"It is very important to know how to present our insights and findings so that users can convert insights into actions," she said. "I found these topics most interesting because we can add our creativity and find interesting ways to present findings."

The themes of her paintings were a precursor to the data visualization that she has learned at the iSchool.

"I enjoy creating abstract artwork as it opens up different dimensions, and it makes the overall creation process more creative," Surange said. "One of my paintings is called 'Ray of Light,' which can be considered as hope, positivity, sunshine, light over darkness, good over bad and knowledge over ignorance. While abstract art gives artists the opportunity to be more creative, the audience also gets freedom to interpret the paintings according to their intellectuality, feelings, and emotions."

Future directions

Surange has accepted an internship offer from Tesla for the Spring 2023 semester. She will be joining the company in Fremont, California, as a technical program manager intern.

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