G.E.M. Environmental is excited to share another new addition to our monthly blog series - Science Stories. Each month, we interview a STEM scholar, student, or community member and ask them things like why they believe the STEM fields are important, how they got started in their field, to what they would do if they hit the jackpot. We hope that our new blog series will inspire, introduce a variety of fields, and create new conversations.
Our guest this month is Michael Link, who for the past 25 years has worked in the areas of survey research and data science, and as an executive who leads large teams doing contract work for the federal government. He earned a Ph.D. in political science at the University of South Carolina, where he learned about conducting survey research and opinion polls. This data is critical for researchers, policymakers, and others to understand how the public thinks about critical issues such as health, environment, education, and the like. It is considered an "applied research" field, where the results often have a direct impact on improving the lives of people not just in the United States but globally.
Why do you believe that the STEM fields are important?
We live in an exciting time of vast change in every facet of our lives and these are all driven by applied science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The need for talented, energetic, and inventive people in these fields is critical. STEM related disciplines are fundamentally changing how we receive health care and finding new cures for diseases; helping to combat climate change and find new ways to generate renewable energy; improving our food supply to help feed growing global populations; as well as offering us a range of commercial technology to improve out lives, such as Siri, self-driving cars, interconnected "smart" devices of all kinds. STEM is driving change globally.
How and why did you get involved in the STEM fields?
Interestingly I made a switch in college from a focus on biology and genetics to more social science applications. I have always had an interest in research and analyses. While my initial foray into the medical field was interesting (I was a lab technician in several hospitals running patient tests), I found myself more drawn to the scientific understanding of how people think and behave. I made a switch in graduate school to political science & sociology, focusing less on academic research and more applied research -- that is, research primarily for federal, state and local agencies determining how people think about issues of interest and measuring how they behave when it comes to issues such as health, job seeking, educational attainment. I find this type of work very rewarding, particularly when the results of my research are used to improve policies that help improve people's lives.
Can you describe another aspect of your life or career that is influenced or enriched by the STEM fields that people would find surprising?
Drones -- I'm an amateur drone pilot and fascinated with the technology behind these amazing machines. I combine that with my love of photography and drones allow me to now takes pictures that give a unique view of the world. It a great hobby that combines both engineering with art in a fun and unique way.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
Easy - the opportunity to improve people's lives. I worked in market research for a number of years where the goal way primarily helping a client sell more goods. That's not a bad thing, but wasn't particularly inspiring. Now I work directly with government agencies (such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Housing and Urban Development; United States Agency for International Development) helping them understand how people think about or behave with regards to critical issues. This information is then typically used to develop or refine policies aimed at helping people in need. That's rewarding!
Have you ever participated in an internship?
When I first went to college it was for a 2 year degree in Medical Technology, working in hospital labs. As a part of this program, I did several 8 week rotations in hospitals and health clinics, learning first-hand how these organizations operate and what my job in this area would entail. It was of tremendous value in helping me understand what I did -- and did not -- like about that profession.
What work experiences have been the most educational for you, and why?
Without a doubt it has been the "hands-on" experiences. As a graduate student, I was fortunate to have an assistantship in a survey research lab where opinion surveys are conducted. I was able to learn all aspects of the job by doing them - how to write a questionnaire; training interviewers; conducting interviews myself; learning statistical analyses; and how to write up and present results to clients. Those lessons I learned decades ago stay with me as I now lead people in all of these types of positions -- I have a better understanding about what they do day in day out and the challenges they face. It helps me be a better leader.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
While I lead a division of 120+ people who work across more than 100 projects at any given time, I personally keep my hand in researching how new data technologies and statistical approaches are effecting my field. I recently gave a key note address at an international science conference in Taipei, Taiwan on the topic of how data science techniques (artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, image recognition) can help us improve traditional survey research work.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I am obsessed with Halloween -- seriously. With three girls, I started decorating the yard with tombstones, webs, etc. Each year for more than 25 years I've added something new -- life sized ghosts, zombies, skeletons, etc. Now we have a yard full of creepy-crawlies .... yes we are "that" house in the neighborhood. But its great fun every Halloween when the kids come by amazed and want their pictures taken with our 8ft Sasquatch!
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you recently?
When in Taiwan I was awoken by a 6.0 earthquake at 5:30 in the morning! I have never been in an earthquake before and can say it was terrifying (lasted a good 15 seconds). I quickly got dressed, grabbed my wallet, passport, phone (and extra charger) and ran down the hotel steps -- all 15 floors! When I got to the lobby there was no one there but the desk attendant who asked: "Can I help you?" I said "What do we do -- that was a big earthquake!" She explained that they have those often and that the buildings are made to withstand the shaking -- STEM at work! I could, however, still go the rest of my life without going through another earthquake!
You won $10 million in the lotto. What would you do?
Retire from my current job and get involved full-time with helping to address the climate change issue globally. This is THE issue of not just our lifetime but will determine the future for generations to come all across the globe.
To learn more about Michael and his work, please check out the following:
Abt Associates Profile
The Relevance of "Data Science" for Survey Research PowerPoint Presentation