UCI Engineering Alumna Contributes Technology Expertise in the U.S. Digital Corps

Veronica Swanson serves as a data science and analytics fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nov. 9, 2023 - Veronica Swanson ’14 (B.S.), ’16 (M.A.), ’23 (Ph.D.)  earned all three of her degrees in mechanical engineering at the UCI Samueli School of Engineering before joining the U.S. Digital Corps (USDC) as a data science and analytics fellow. Launched in 2021 in collaboration with the White House and partners across government, the U.S. Digital Corps offers early-career technologists an onramp into federal service with the potential to convert into permanent positions. Fellows support agencies with skills including software engineering, product management, design, data science and analytics, and cybersecurity. Swanson is one of 48 fellows selected from 1,355 applicants this year, and she will serve two years supporting the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tell us about your work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

I am working (remotely) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Office of the Chief Information Officer. USDA is working on many projects across its mission areas to promote equity in the services the American public receives and has access to. These projects are related to White House initiatives such as Justice40 and Executive Orders like EO 1385: Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through The Federal Government. I am working with a team to develop a dashboard that will allow decision-makers to view what projects are currently underway across the agency related to different initiatives and track the progress of these projects.

What motivated you to apply to this government fellowship?

A desire to be a part of projects that contribute to public good and are scoped less by their revenue potential.

If anyone is interested, I encourage them to check out the Digital Corps website [https://digitalcorps.gsa.gov/] for information about upcoming application cycles.

Why are you interested in public policy?

I’m interested in public policy for its potential broad impact downstream in the lives of many people. My role is more focused on the implementation of policy than policy development. I think implementation is often overlooked, but the way you implement a project has a big effect on the success of a project.

What are some of the challenges the government faces regarding technology/digital transformation?

There are a lot of factors that present challenges for government transformation. Many people have and continue to work on this topic.

In my role specifically, I’ve seen that some challenges stem from the length of time many of these government institutions have existed. Across all organizations -- not just in government --  maintenance or innovation of a system isn’t always a priority if the system works well enough. There are also many competing needs and stakeholders with different priorities.

So, one of the challenges for technologists is to communicate why change is needed, and what we are losing if we don’t invest in specific ways.

Swanson, pictured center in cream- colored sleeveless top, attended the U.S. Digital Corps orientation in Washington, D.C.,  in August 2023. She is one of 48 fellows selected this year.

What are you hoping to achieve as a fellow?

I think technology implementation has the potential to streamline and connect processes. I’m hoping to help make important information more accessible. If we don’t have data, we can’t make data-driven decisions, and we can’t evaluate the success of policy implementation.

What are your career plans after the two-year fellowship?

At this point, it’s too early to tell. At the end of the program, I’ll be a different person, and what I’m interested in and what I want may be different. I’m a big believer in the idea that a large part of success is being in the right place at the right time. So what opportunities I’ll have available will depend on my experience and networking over the next two years.

How did your UCI engineering education prepare you for this role?

I think my engineering education has helped me develop process-oriented and systematic problem-solving strategies. Those strategies help me tackle projects even if the domain or the programs are unfamiliar to me. I’m grateful for the people I got to meet at UCI. I worked and learned with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives that I might have not seen otherwise.

Were there any special mentors you had at UCI?

Yes, I had a number of hands-on projects and teaching experiences facilitated by UCI faculty and staff. Leyla Riley, Ben Dolan, Lily Wu, Ian Harris, Michael McCarthy, Gregory Washington and David Reinkensmeyer – to name a few – all helped me with teaching, outreach and project-based learning experiences that were very important to me.

What inspired you to be an engineer?

An interest in understanding how things work and using that knowledge to make change.

What advice would you give to first year Anteater engineers?

When you’re starting out, it’s important to explore a lot of opportunities, fields and disciplines. Often, when you get a job or pursue academic research, you focus on a topic or process. So, identifying what you are interested in earlier will help you find more fulfilling opportunities later. And, you may end up finding skills from one experience that end up helping you in a domain you thought was unrelated.

– Lori Brandt