Statisticians at The Climate Corporation are developing unique, actionable insights for farmers to enhance their decisions and help them farm more sustainably. Vera Bulaevskaya and her team are entrenched in this work everyday, using statistical models to develop fertilizer rate recommendations so farmers can optimize their inputs.
With just five months under her belt, Vera sat down with Patricia Park-Li from our People Ops team to talk more about the evolution of her career, her path to Climate and what she enjoys most about the work she’s leading today.
PPL: Tell me about your career path to Climate.
VB: I earned my Ph.D. in statistics from University of Minnesota in 2002. For my thesis, I worked on a statistical approach to Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) reconstruction. I really enjoyed working on imaging applications and interdisciplinary research in general, so after getting my Ph.D., I spent three and a half years as visiting faculty in the Statistics Department at Carnegie Mellon University, where I continued working on MRI applications. I also became involved in functional MRI (fMRI) and neuroscience research projects. Following that, I went to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and spent over 11 years there as staff statistician. During that time, I worked on a variety of different applications including geophysics, climate modeling, particle physics, energy forecasting, material science and radiation detection.
I first became aware of Climate several years ago when I came across a really nice article about it in The New Yorker Magazine while waiting in the doctor’s office. About a year later, Climate happened to contact my husband Gardar, who is also a statistician, offering him a position at the San Francisco Office. He’s now been with the company for over three years.
A little while later, I started pondering changing jobs as well. Although the lab had been a great place for me to work and learn, I felt that it was time for a change. Much of this was because my opportunities there were limited due to not having a security clearance (because I’m a dual citizen). I was at a crossroads trying to decide whether to get the clearance (which would mean giving up my Russian citizenship and facing some logistical complications for traveling back there or look for opportunities outside the Lab).
I was still on the fence about what to do when Climate contacted me about the Fertility Statistics Team Lead position. When I received an offer, I was really excited, but after having been at the Lab for so long, making a change was a bit scary. However, through Gardar’s experience, I knew quite a bit about Climate, specifically what the company culture was like and the types of problems statisticians and other technical people worked on. I felt that I had a fair amount of information about what it would be like to work at Climate, so it wasn’t a total unknown. Both the role I was being offered and the company as a whole seemed like a great match for what I was looking for in my career, so I decided the opportunity would be too good to pass up. Five months later, here we are!
PPL: What attracted you to Climate for your career?
VB: I found the mission, which is to help all the world’s farmers sustainably increase their productivity with digital tools, to be very intriguing and felt that I would probably fit well into this environment. I knew a number of people at Climate through Gardar. I found them to be very nice, intelligent and could easily see myself interacting with them every day. I’ve been quite spoiled in my professional life by having been surrounded by very smart people, so that was something I was definitely still looking for in whatever role I pursued next. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to be in a “cut-throat” environment. That was never a good fit for my personality and especially at this point in my life since we have a young daughter and another child on the way. I wanted to work at a place where I could have a balanced life. I have found the atmosphere at Climate to be very collegial. Of course, as in any job, there can be times of stress when you need to get things done, but this type of stress is different. It isn’t the type that comes from a tough, toxic culture or people behaving like jerks!
PPL: That’s a hard and fast rule in Science, we don’t hire jerks!
VB: I can see that - especially in the people I interact with regularly. It is clear that such a filter is applied in hiring. The people I interact with are extremely nice and helpful. My onboarding was surprisingly stress-free. I felt like I was really welcomed, and many people helped me quite a bit to get settled in - especially people on my team, but also everyone else at Climate. I’ve been genuinely impressed with the caliber of people here, both in terms of their personalities and intellect.
PPL: What is your current job and title?
VB: I’m the Statistics Lead on the Fertility Team. I lead a team of six statisticians including myself. The Fertility Team focuses its efforts on producing fertilizer recommendations that help our farmer customers optimize their inputs and ensure the environment is protected. The statisticians on the team work on statistical aspects of these efforts. My role has several functions. First and foremost, I need to be an advocate for the people on my team, which means ensuring they have the resources they need to be successful in their projects and their careers in general. If any issues come up, technical or otherwise, I’m their first point of contact. My goal is to be their thought partner as they develop and implement their methods, as well as to be a mentor and help guide their career. It is also my job to create a broader vision for the team and spot opportunities to contribute in a novel way to the Fertility Team and the company overall. I am also the interface between my team and other teams across our R&D organization, with teams such as Product, Engineering and Data & Analytics. I help understand what other teams’ needs are and how my team can contribute (and vice versa). That means in part a lot of translating back and forth.
PPL: What do you like most about working at Climate?
VB: I really like the people I work with. When I come to work, I’m in a very nice and stimulating environment. Climate is a very supportive, easy place to be yourself. I was recently at the Women of Silicon Valley conference and there was a lot of discussion about how in some organizations people don’t feel comfortable revealing a lot about themselves or their lives because they feel they will be judged. I know that this might vary a lot depending on what part of the company you’re in, but I feel that with the people I interact with regularly, it’s fairly easy to be yourself. I’ll be going on maternity leave soon, and everyone has been very supportive and that’s been very valuable, especially since I’m still settling into the job.
PPL: People are so family-friendly here.
VB: Yes and I also appreciate how functional it is, especially relative to what I was used to at a government lab. For example, I am really impressed with the IT here. At any time during work hours I can go with my computer and bug someone with a question and not wait three days before someone even acknowledges that I have submitted a service request! It’s a much more convenient environment to get your work done.
PPL: In your mind, what is the biggest opportunity you see working in agtech at Climate?
VB: I think there’s a huge opportunity to use data science to drive and optimize the decisions that farmers face. It is a very hard scientific problem, but by getting the right kind and amount of data and analyzing it correctly, we can unlock a lot of insights and produce a novel way of making recommendations. Just viewing data in a useful and insightful way can be extremely valuable for a farmer, and statistics and data science can have a huge impact in this area as well.
PPL: What excites you most about the future?
VB: I’m very close to having a baby, so I’m taking it one day at a time and am thinking of the more immediate future, rather than longer-term future! My reality is now mostly divided into the periods of before the baby arrives and after! These last few months have been filled with excitement, due to expecting another child and starting a new job, and I’m sure things will continue to be very interesting. I’m excited to see how things take shape at Climate going forward. Statisticians across our company are working on some really interesting things that I think have a great potential to improve our product for farmers. And on the personal side, I’m excited to see the addition to our family and hopefully our older daughter isn’t going to freak out!