Biologist-turned-data scientist, Louisa Carlisle

Biologist-turned-data scientist, Louisa Carlisle, is the type of person you want to root for. She’s smart, compassionate, a thinker, a doer. She’s someone you definitely want on your team – especially when we’re talking about korfball. Amongst her many talents, one of Ms Carlisle’s passions is endorsing this Dutch sport here in Switzerland. iET will be sponsoring the Swiss Korfball Federation on their trip to the European Championship 2021 in Poland. So, we’ve caught up with Ms Carlisle about her endeavours…

iET: First off, can I just mention your resume – it’s packed with impressive achievements. You clearly enjoy challenging yourself…

LC: Thanks, that’s very kind (laughs). Yeah, I feel like I’m still figuring out what I really want to do in life and I have been fortunate to have a lot of different opportunities to try different things and make the most of that.

iET: Going from a Biologist to a Data Scientist is definitely a cool transition…

LC: Yeah, for sure. I notice the difference with my work colleagues but equally it is nice to bring a different perspective into the field. I think it’s beneficial to have a cross-disciplinary view on things.

iET: Did it actually help you to have a biology background with your work so far, or was it more of a hindrance?

LC: I can’t think of a specific example where it has really helped, but it definitely is useful to question things that other people just accept.

iET: Let’s talk about Korfball: it’s been compared to netball and basketball, and played in countries all over the world, yet it’s not widely represented. Why do you think that is?

LC: Yeah I don’t know, it’s a tough question. The reason is definitely not reflective of how much fun or how exciting the sport is. Coming from the Netherlands, it didn’t have English-speaking origins – which I imagine would’ve helped spread it around the world. Also, it was invented in the early 1900s when it was quite controversial to have a mixed-gender sport. That is actually one of the great things about the sport today, but I imagine this could have been a hindrance during its early days. It is shame that it’s not more widely represented.

iET: It’s an extremely progressive sport where men and women can play together in a team, but it’s also very regulated when it comes to attacking and defending. Men defend men and vice versa. Is that correct?

LC: Yeah, you can only defend against your own gender, which keeps it quite balanced when considering differences in size and strength. But, equally, the way the game is set up, you can’t have just one really strong man doing all the work, and have this kind of solo-play. You need to have all the people on the team working together. The best teams have very good men and very good women. That’s how they perform the best.

iET: From what I’ve seen, korfball is a very fast-paced sport. The ball never wanders around for very long…

LC: Absolutely, yeah (laughs). Because you can’t run with the ball or move once you’ve got it, but equally you can’t shoot once you are being actively defended. It means you have to get the ball moving around very quickly so you can get away from your defender, then get the ball and shoot in that split second before your defender catches up to you. It is very fast-paced and also very tactical.

iET: One might even say it’s more interesting than football…

LC: I would certainly say so (laughs).

iET: Was it during your student days at Cambridge University where you were first introduced to korfball?

LC: Yes. I previously played netball quite a lot growing up, amongst other sports. But I was also looking to try something a bit different, so I went to a try-out session and found everyone very friendly. And, like we said, it’s fun and fast-paced but also more dynamic: in netball, for example, you have just two people per team allowed to shoot, whereas in korfball everyone gets to shoot and defend. One of the other differences is that the post [for shooting] is a lot higher in korfball than netball.

iET: Korfball seems to be a passion that’s had a big impact on you, given your efforts in helping to raise awareness for the sport…

LC: (Laughs.) Yeah, I mean, when I first planned to move to Switzerland it was like: “Oh no there’s no korfball there. What am I gonna do?” And my friend said “You just have to set up your own korfball club then”. I didn’t imagine that I would have a helping hand in setting up the Zurich Korfball Club, but I needed to get more people together to play against and with. It is such a well-balanced sport – I think it’s going to appeal to a lot of people when they have the chance to try it.

iET: You mentioned Korfball Zurich, which is the club that you have founded with other people. Do you have different matches with clubs from other cities in Switzerland, something like a league?

LC: Korfball in Switzerland is about five years old now; the Zurich Club is about two years old. We also have a club in Basel that’s a year old and there’s a small club in Lausanne that’s a bit older but still growing. So yes, we’ve set up the “Alp league” where we have an inter-Switzerland competition where we meet up for match days. We are growing that from just a single day tournament to a tournament spread over several days. We also meet up for friendly games and matches, and socials too.

iET: What’s the selection process for the Swiss National Korfball team?

LC: We have played in the European Championship Qualifiers in 2017 and 2019. During both, Korfball was still small in Switzerland, so essentially the players consisted of everyone who was willing and able to travel, and commit to the training beforehand. But now, because we did actually qualify last year, when we play at the European Championship next year, there are going to be selections. So it’s going to be based on one’s playing ability and their ability to commit to the training and so on.

iET: In 2018, you taught yourself to build a website to promote korfball and the Swiss Korfball Federation, and another to endorse Korfball Club Zürich. Do you still play the sport recreationally?

LC: Yeah, for sure. I train regularly with the Korfball Club Zurich and over the last two years, since its founding, we have grown to have two trainings a week. For the last year I have also been one of the trainers of the club, which has been really cool to try that out and have a different viewpoint on the sport. Not only thinking about how can I improve but also how can I help others develop further in the sport or how to introduce new people to the sport. That’s been really fun. I have also played for Switzerland, which was a great experience.

iET: Korfball is said to encourage gender equality, and it’s great to see men and women go head-to-head in professional sport. There should be more sports with similar socio-political undertones. Is this partly what attracted you to the sport?

LC: I don’t think it is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s definitely part of what kept me playing it. That’s what makes it a well-balanced, dynamic game. I also feel that the gender mix keeps the atmosphere nice. It’s still competitive but also very friendly. Even at the European competition level, games are super-competitive on the pitch but in the evening we go out for drinks with the opposite teams and have a good time. Most of my friends here in Zurich are part of the Zurich Club. And it’s also a sport where people have found their future partners.

iET: Moving to your qualifications, what drew you to studying your Masters degree at the University of Zürich?

LC: The idea for me was to learn German. My mum is German, but I never learned the language. So I was looking for courses in Germany or Switzerland that were taught in English. Learning German by immersing myself was the goal. Didn’t quite realize that Swiss German was so different to regular German! (Laughs)

iET: Could you tell us a little about your current job and employer?

LC: We are working to build this body profile platform where people can connect to their virtual body. Currently, we are focusing on the online shopping market. So, with their smart phone, people can take pictures of themselves resulting in a 3D virtual avatar of themselves. It also provides body measurements so that you can get tailor-made clothing or virtually try-on clothes. This is what we are working on.

iET: Very futuristic. And what’s your specific role?

LC: I am working on the research team. We are still a start-up company, quite small. We all work on different projects as needed. We’re currently working on improving the algorithms which model a person’s body.

iET: This means there is a set of algorithms that calculate everything so that once you go to an online shop, you can see how a t-shirt fits on you?

LC: Yes, exactly. We are kind of creating a virtual 3D model of the person from their pictures.

iET: Great! Looking forward to seeing where it goes. Could you explain your typical day in the life of a data scientist?

LC: Basically, you constantly come up with ideas on how to improve the algorithms or create new ones. The day-to-day sequence might go something like: looking into some research on how other people have tackled similar problems, it might be trying to implement some of those different ideas. It might be writing the production level code once we have figured out which method works best. It’s a combination of research and the actual development and production.    

We’d like to say congrats on all your incredible achievements to-date, and we wish you our sincere best wishes for your future endeavours. It was great to meet you, and we hope the tournament goes well. Hopp Schwiiz!

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