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November 20, 2016

The way Nick Strayer '15 tells the story, it seems simple. How did he get a post as a data journalist at The New York Times a few months after he graduated from UVM? “They contacted me,” he says. A captivating narrative in three words. But beneath it—like the interactive visualizations, maps, and other stories he has created for the Times and elsewhere—rests a much more complex foundation of “messy data and a lot of hard work,” he says.

A double-major in mathematics and statistics, with a minor in computer science, Strayer started putting data visualizations on his website when he was an undergrad. “Basically, what I do is make numbers tell a story through pictures,” he says. For example, in the summer after his junior year, he was working for a data visualization start-up company in California and there were a lot of forest fires. “It was fifteen miles each way to work,” he recalls. “ I didn't want to bike if the smoke was really bad. But there were no good tools online to see where wildfires were burning.” So he built one himself. “I went and found some data that NASA had opened up from their satellites that pinpoint temperature anomalies on the surface of the planet.” Strayer’s goal was simply to have a “map on my phone that I could check out and see: hey, should I bike today?” he says. But it was such a good tool that he soon got a call from the Red Cross. They wanted to use it to help with rescue efforts.

Map of wildfires

Nick Strayer had a simple goal: make a wildfire map so he could avoid smoke on his bike commute. But it attracted the attention of the Red Cross and helped lead him to a story about wildfires that he published in the New York Times.

During his senior year, Strayer worked with researchers at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics to create a “narrative visualization” of the effects of different policies on global warming. His goal: to help a team of UVM scientists that was heading to the UN climate negotiations in Paris. Afterward, he got a message on Twitter from an editor at the New York Times, who “liked what I was doing,” Strayer says. Soon, he had a summer internship at the newspaper and was cranking out stories and images, including several for The Upshot, the Times' quantitative blog—and a 20-hour workday to build a block-by-block visualizaton of the terrorist attack in Nice, France.

One of Strayer’s stories drew wide national attention and echoed with his own story of going to college—having left a small farm town in Michigan to come to Vermont. “The Great Out-of-State Migration: Where Students Go,” presents a national map showing the number of first-year college students who left their home states to attend public college in another state. The flowing orange arrows make the story of this in-and-out migration seem, well, simple. But in truth it was so hard to uncover that it had never been told before. “I had to play with this data for a long time,” Strayer says in an understated Midwestern kind of way. He gathered lists of students from “thousands of public universities, each with its own systems, and all these weird codes,” he says. Soon after his story was published, Strayer received an email from a university researcher, an expert on school migration. “’Where did you get this data?’ he asked me. I’ve been searching for this for my whole career,” Strayer says.

Just connect

Now Strayer is a PhD student in biostatistics at Vanderbilt—with his own independent funding from the NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge program—but he plans to continue contributing to the New York Times. “I’m going to go crazy on my next vacation to get some freelance pieces done for them,” he says, “I’ve got some stories in mind.”

And the power of stories is perhaps the most important lesson he learned as a student at UVM. Strayer’s discovery of what he calls “narrative insight” began on his very first day of class in the Honors College—when he had a paper due for professor Helga Schreckenberger’s freshman seminar, The Pursuit of Knowledge. “I’m a very quantitative, mathematically-minded person,” Strayer says, “and in high school I thought all this liberal arts stuff was stupid. I was naïve.” He got a poor grade on that paper—and began a close friendship with Schreckenberger, the chair of UVM’s German Department, who mentored him for four years. “She’s a wonderful person,” he says, “whose scholarly interests in exile narratives couldn’t be more different than mine,” he says, but “she helped me see that writing was more than simply putting words down on a page to get a good grade,” he said. “It’s a chance to connect.”

From her, as well as mathematicians James Bagrow and Richard Single, lake ecologist Jason Stockwell, and other professors, Strayer began to learn that the search for narrative allows knowledge, even the most quantitative, to illuminate “other people’s experience and to distill meaning,” he says. At its deepest, a story is a “form of empathy,” Nick Strayer says. “I’m looking for the deeper story in the data.”

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