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Alumni Experiences

The Practicality of Passion

As an art student walking around the Brigham Young University campus with clay-splattered pants, Laurel Galli-Graves could not have imagined that in a couple years she would end up working for the Department of Defense. In fact, before she began the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the BYU Marriott School of Business, she had never written a piece of code and didn’t know what a data scientist’s job was. Now, as a US Digital Corps Data Science Fellow, she combines her artistic creativity, passion for public service, and love of analytics and machine learning to help further the public good.

Laurel Galli-Graves smiles in front of an American flag.
Laurel Galli-Graves is a graduate of the MPA program.
Photo courtesy of Laurel Galli-Graves.

In contrast to becoming a data scientist, making art seemed natural to Galli-Graves. As a child she could often be found painting or making sculptures out of objects found in the recyclables. At BYU she enjoyed the challenge of conveying complex and often enigmatic ideas visually. “Artists need to make their work approachable to a diverse audience so the audience can understand, interact, and engage with it,” Galli-Graves explains.

“The art faculty at BYU helped me think critically about the world around me and translate that into work that would not only be visually interesting but would also spark important and difficult dialogue.” Despite her passion for art, Galli-Graves decided not to pursue art full-time following her graduation in 2019. “I really love art-making and I continue to do it, but I don’t feel drawn to it as a business,” Galli-Graves explains. “I wanted a career that I felt more tangibly impacted people and the public good.”

Laurel Galli-Graves stands outside with her peers.
Laurel Galli-Graves works for the Department of Defense.
Photo courtesy of Laurel Galli-Graves.

This desire led Galli-Graves to BYU Marriott’s MPA program because of its focus on impactful work in the public sector. “I never planned on being a data scientist, but I ended up loving all of the elective analytic classes in the MPA program,” Galli-Graves says. “I found out I really liked coding, and I just had fun.”

While taking classes that blended information systems with public administration, Galli-Graves realized that her art background was a huge asset. “Data science and art are similar in the sense that there’s not one right answer,” Galli-Graves states. “From an artist’s perspective, data science is very creative because of the out-of-the-box thinking required to solve a real-world problem.”

As Galli-Graves worked toward graduation from the MPA program, the US Digital Corps and its data science and analytics track caught her eye. The US Digital Corps is a highly competitive two-year, full-time, paid fellowship for early-career technology talent to serve across the federal government. She attended every webinar she could to learn more about increasing her chances of being accepted. “I had no plan B,” she admits. “My plan B was applying next year if I wasn’t accepted this year.”

After successfully participating in the application process, Galli-Graves ultimately received a job offer from the US Digital Corps. “It’s an amazing and interesting fellowship because as federal workers, our customers are everyone in the country,” she says.

Laurel Galli-Graves holds a microphone as she speaks at a meeting.
Laurel Galli-Graves speaks to others at a meeting.
Photo courtesy of Laurel Galli-Graves.

Currently Galli-Graves uses her art experience and knowledge in data science at the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) to filter through information from the Department of Defense (DoD) and relay relevant data to other experts in a digestible way. “We are working on organizing this data to make it more accessible to researchers,” she explains. “Essentially, we want to be the primary search engine and analytics source for researchers receiving DoD funding.”

She employs Large Language Models and other text analytic and visualization techniques to help DTIC sift through the massive amount of data they have and better surface insights for users. “There’s a huge opportunity for the federal government to use machine learning ethically and morally to make systems work better, and that’s what I want to do in my future,” Galli-Graves adds.

As Galli-Graves continues to balance her artistic perspective and data science skills to contribute to the DoD, she is an example of the limitless possibilities that arise when passion and practicality unite for a greater purpose. Galli-Graves's professional journey and pivots showcase the power of blending one’s creative inclinations with a commitment to the public good.


Written by Maggie Olsen