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Meet the team: Andrea Palaia - From particle physics at CERN to Detectify data

February 2, 2017

Team Data at Detectify is a one-man show ran by our Data Scientist Andrea Palaia. After completing his PhD in accelerator physics and doing research at CERN, Andrea worked at an Italian startup and joined Detectify two years ago, building the data infrastructure from scratch.

Inspired by a high school teacher

The story of Andrea and data science started in Rome when Andrea was in his final year of high school. He was interested in Biology and IT, but wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to study. As he worked on a project about black holes for his finals, he got help from a teacher who was a physicist and specialized in theoretical physics. “He introduced me to Einstein’s theory in such a simple way that I could actually do the calculations with my high school maths. I realized this was what I wanted to do, to be able to study and explain nature,” Andrea says. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in Physics, Andrea got a master’s in accelerator physics and started looking for PhD positions.

Between CERN and Uppsala

During his time as a PhD student in Uppsala, Andrea researched the feasibility of a new particle accelerator that could, for example, be used in medicine and would reduce costs and infrastructure requirements for hospitals. Andrea spent time doing research at CERN and then travelled back to Uppsala to do data analysis, which is what originally sparked his interested in data science: “That’s how I started doing data analysis and I really liked data. I liked it a lot!”

Big experiments, big datasets, big numbers

Andrea says that data science and the nature of particle physics are a great fit: “Experiments to study particles are big and you have to produce a huge amount of particles, so products of these collisions are usually huge numbers of other particles. All big numbers! In the end, these numbers go into big datasets and that’s how I started doing data science.” Andrea enjoyed doing data analysis because the data he worked with was so diversified and there was no obvious way to approach it. He explains: “The game was to find creative solutions to look at the data in a smart way and I think that’s what intrigued me the most, to be creative and look for a smart solution.”

First foray into the startup world

Once his PhD was complete, Andrea co-founded a startup with his friend. The company worked with protection from plagiarism and Andrea says the experience was a lot of fun and made him curious about the startup world. “The startup scene is exciting and you can shape your own ideas. Enterprises are bigger and more stable, but more structured and less dynamic. It’s all about the trade-off and what’s more exciting for you.” Andrea points out that he nearly ended up working with software development at a huge corporation, but luckily, he realized that he found startups more exciting and eventually found his way to Detectify.

It started with an event at SUP46

In spring 2015, Andrea attended a startup recruiting event at SUP46. He says he was immediately interested in working at Detectify: “I talked to a lot of startups at the event, but when Rickard and Fredrik (Detectify’s CEO and Head of Engineering) pitched Detectify, I thought ‘wow, this sounds really cool’.” Andrea gave them his CV and was invited to a Skype interview a couple of days later, followed by another interview and an offer. Detectify’s Team Data was ready to get started and crunch some numbers!

His own data creature

The fact that Andrea joined the team at an early stage and helped build everything from scratch means that he’s never bored. He explains how he tackled the opportunity to shape Detectify’s data analysis in his own way: “When I got the position, there was no dedicated data infrastructure. I got to design and build everything according to our needs, it’s my own creature! I really like that I have an overview of the whole process.” Detectify has changed and grown a lot since his first day on the job: “Seeing all these people around me has been one of the best rewards because indirectly, it means that we are doing a good job.” The time has come for the data team to grow, something Andrea is looking forward to: “We’ve come to the point when it’s not enough with just me. It’s a completely different phase and it’s very exciting!”

Q&A with Andrea

iPhone or Android?
Definitely Android.

Mac or PC?
PC, I need to decide every little piece of hardware and software in it.

Favourite data science resource?
A few blogs about data visualization and data engineering and data science blogs of big data companies.

Any tips for data scientists?
Don’t be frustrated when you realize that you spent 90% of your time to make data look decent and you still haven’t started to put any science on top of them.

#1 security advice?
Be ready for data disasters by always having backup copies of everything. Especially the most obvious things which are usually those you will forget and will be lost forever.

Andrea enjoys sharing his knowledge and explaining data in a simple way. He writes about Detectify data, provides us with fun stats in our Yearly Review and also guest blogged about data science for Swedish tech publication InternetWorld.


Do you want to become part of Team Data at Detectify? We’re looking for a data engineer, so why not head over to our careers page to find out more?