Alumna shares how a love of sports and analytics paved the way

In the high-impact world of professional football, player health and safety are of utmost concern. Behind the scenes, data scientists like Illinois alumna, Ishani Desai (BS, '22, statistics and computer science) play a critical role leveraging analytics to track equipment, identify trends, and mitigate potential risks on the field. Stat-News had a chance to chat with Desai to discuss her journey from Illinois to the National Football League (NFL) where she is currently a data scientists in the Player Health and Safety division. Join us as we learn more about Desai's journey as she shares insights on internships, favorite course, and advice for current students. 

Stat-News: Briefly describe your occupational duties as a data scientist for Player Health and Safety in the NFL.

Ishani Desai: To give a little background on how NFL analytics works in general, there's one big analytics department, and we support other groups in the NFL, like officiating, media, football operations, and more that I'm missing. I primarily support Player Health and Safety. One of the big things I was hired to do was engineer and manage the equipment tracking system for the NFL. An equipment tracking system was in place beforehand, but my job was to improve that and the relationships with the equipment managers. We have RFID tags that are supposed to be on all the equipment, and then, as players walk through the locker room doors, these portals pick up all the RFID tags. But the equipment managers are responsible for getting those tags on all the equipment, and there's a lot of complexity. My job is to support them in doing that, and then once the data comes through, I do analysis and quality assurance checks before it flows through to the next stage, like injury analysis.

SN: What key indicators are you looking at when reviewing the collected data? 

ID: It's different every week. The main thing we do is just make sure all the equipment is complete and of high quality. That means every player must have high-quality equipment, like helmets, shoulder pads, and cleats. If I see a player is missing something from the system or question the quality, I reach out to the equipment manager and have them update the equipment or make sure the tag is working. Each equipment item has components like size. But each piece has different parts like you have a helmet, and it may have an eye shield or other things, and all that data must be recorded to make sure that everything is complete. That's the standard routine. We also look for trends with how and what equipment players like to wear or if there is equipment we might phase out. Overall, we are looking to keep everything up to standard to prevent injuries.

SN: Can you describe your journey from graduating from the University of Illinois to becoming a data scientist in the NFL?

ID: I started freshman year as a Stat&CS major, which is what I graduated in. Initially, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I liked statistics, and I knew computer science was important. It's a similar field to what my dad does, so I knew how to code before I got into college. I knew it was a good skill to have, so that's why I picked the major. When I went away to college, my interest in sports started to grow. I would watch at home in California but watching in Champaign helped me cope with homesickness. I would watch all [Illini] sports teams and then talk to my brother, dad, and friends about the games.

I realized that statistics has a really big role in sports as well, and I started to realize that you can become a statistician for sports teams, and that's where it all started. I wanted to see if I could do anything to combine these two interests. I ended up with an internship with the National Center of Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) on campus, and they had a project going on with Illinois football. I applied for that project, and I ended up getting it. I loved it, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I got to do. I ended up applying for another program that the NFL put on, which was a mentorship program for data analytics. And that role was what got me the experience I needed for my current role with the NFL. So, it was like a domino effect.

In the beginning, I didn't understand how to apply statistics or what it would look like in a career, but finding something that I was interested in and applying statistics to it made it even more interesting.

SN: Can you tell us about your experience with internships while at Illinois?

ID: Synchrony was after my freshman year of college. I had virtually no experience and only took the classes most freshmen take. However, I secured Synchrony through Research Park. If you're in school and looking for internship or work opportunities, I would apply to everything that looks interesting. Synchrony was a good environment for me to learn, and I did something different from what I do now. I was working on their apps team on their iOS app, which was developed in Swift and with which I had never worked before, so that was an amazing opportunity to learn something new while on the job. It was a great experience, but I wasn't particularly interested in app development. It ruled out software development for me but gave me a valuable learning experience, which was awesome.

Then came the NCSA, and I had a manager I worked with there and one of the assistant coaches from Lovie Smith's staff before he left. I learned a lot more about football in that role. My coding skills improved on that project, as well as my football knowledge. But it solidified what I wanted to do.  

Then, after my junior year, I interned with Thermo-Fisher as a data science intern for their finance team. That solidified my data science and project management skills because they gave the interns projects and were yours to own. My project was to build a revenue forecasting model for different product lines. I had never built a model before, so I had to teach myself, but it was so much fun. I had a lot of mentors there, and I learned the most professional skills. They encouraged mentoring and networking. I had learned a lot in classes, like coding and data science skills, but I hadn't had a chance to put it all together. But that internship prepared me for my current role in terms of managing and leading projects. For someone interested in a career path similar to mine, data visualization skills are very important. A lot of times, you are working with people who are not necessarily well-versed in the subject matter or industry you're working in or understand the data. Data visualization can help deliver actionable insights and is an important part of what gives your work value, which I learned with Thermo-Fisher. They emphasized that, and I carried that to my current role.

SN: What did you enjoy about being a student at UIUC?

ID: The biggest thing I enjoyed was being surrounded by other students. All your friends and other people are in a similar place in life as you are in being a student on campus. There was always so much to do and many activities. I miss the community the most. Academically, I missed the classroom. I didn't value it as much when I was there. Now that I'm out of school, I wish I would have taken more time to appreciate it and appreciate just being there more. Being there and getting good grades doesn't have to take away from the experience. It's a mindset that I'm carrying into grad school. Learning in a classroom environment with peers around me was amazing.

SN: Where was your favorite place on campus?

ID: I loved the Quad and the Illini Union. Whenever I needed to study, I would go to the basement of the Union, where all these people like me were around. But it was nice because I didn't know them, so I could work without getting distracted by them talking to me. But it was nice having people around, and the Union is huge, so I could always pick different places in the building to work.

SN: What was your favorite course while at Illinois? 

ID: There was a class with Darren Glosemeyer, professional statistics, and he had people come in and talk to us that were working in industry. That class and that experience is what did it for me. I already had a return offer with Thermo at that point. I knew I would be a data scientist, but what he conveyed in that class connected with me. Communicating technical findings to non-technical partners, which I never really had to do because everybody that I talked to was well-versed analytically or was like a data scientist. But in his course, he would bring in people from industry that would talk about their jobs, and he brought in [Ehsan Bokhari of the Chicago Cubs]. That was cool because I started thinking about working for a sports team. So, okay, someone who graduated from Illinois not too long ago now works for a sports team. This is something that I can do, too. I can achieve this dream of mine. So, that was a pivotal moment for me.

Another moment was when I was a course assistant, and I was not doing well as a course assistant for the course. My supervisor pulled me aside and talked to me, but at the end, he said, "Pick something you're interested in and become an expert in it." At that point, I knew I liked sports, and I knew I liked statistics, but I hadn't connected them yet. I didn't understand what I wanted to do yet. Looking back, I didn't believe in myself. I knew what I was doing here and was qualified to make decisions, but I wasn't being helpful in that course. At the end of the day, it was like a failure for me, but that was such a pivotal moment because it made me realize that I needed to figure out how to turn things around. So, I did.


SN: What are your future goals?

ID: I'm starting grad school next spring. I miss learning in the classroom environment. I've learned so much in my year plus on the job, but you learn as you need to learn. But I'm excited to go back to school and get back into the classroom, select classes that I'm interested in, and learn those skills. It's so valuable, especially in this industry, with technologies changing so quickly that you have to keep up. If it is not going back to school, getting certifications or online courses will help to keep pace. I love my current role with the NFL, and it would be awesome to gain a higher data science skillset to eventually become a senior data scientist and stay with the NFL.


SN: What advice would you give to current students trying to find their place or connect with others on campus?

ID: One of the biggest pieces of advice that people gave me that works for anyone is to create side projects to work on. I had all these ideas about different projects, but I didn't know how to do them. I didn't have the skills at that point to start coding. Most of the time, I didn't even know where to begin. So, I found which courses taught the skills I needed to go beyond just focusing on getting my degree. If you are interested in being a data scientist or analyst, find interesting problems to work on or create your own to solve, then see what skills you need to solve that problem. Start looking at courses that teach those skills early on and map out your courses to take the right ones that are applicable.

Find student organizations that relate to your major or are interested in professionally. There are so many organizations that can add to your academic experience to help you career-wise. It helps to see what people are doing, have them see what you're doing, and help you talk to each other about your interests. Being able to share advice and ask questions is valuable.

Connect with your professors. Ask about things they're working on. You don't even always have to go with the intention of wanting to get in on their projects, but just getting to know the people teaching you and the things they are working on is valuable. Ask them why they got into this field, and keep that connection going past just taking the class with them.

It can be hard or daunting as a student to do that, but the common thread of these things is getting out of your comfort zone. If something you think would be good for you or something you want to do but seems scary for you, that's usually an indication to do it. I still use that now, and it's worked out great.

SN: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our audience?

ID: The Illinois campus and community are such special places. And Illinois did help to set me up for success. I don't know where I would be or if I would have discovered my passion without everything happening along the way. Even with all the successes, my failures were very important because that is what drove me to learn. When you fail, you can be hard on yourself for a few days and then go straight to what you can learn from it and how you can do better next time. Embrace the failures because that is honestly where you learn more.