October 15, 2018 NCACI connecting Ohio State students with analytics opportunities

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When the Nationwide Center for Advanced Customer Insights (NCACI) was created in 2008, the concept of collecting, interpreting and strategically utilizing large amounts of data wasn’t exactly mainstream.

Now, the use of data and analytics is everywhere, and the NCACI has a decade-long pedigree as a leader and is a strategic link between Nationwide and The Ohio State University — not to mention a launching pad for some of the university’s brightest students.

While the importance of data has grown, the mission of the NCACI has remained steadfast. By leveraging the unique insights of Ohio State faculty and undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, the center focuses on critical thinking skills and rigorous problem formulation methodologies in the conduct of insurance and financial product research.

“When the partnership was first formed, there was almost something novel about it, and we appreciated Fisher’s willingness to take this risk with us and venture down this new path,” said Sarah Ellis (MPA ’97), associate vice president of Nationwide’s Enterprise Analytics Office. “At the time, data and analytics was loosely defined and viewed more as a curiosity than a necessity. As this field has evolved, our program has become a critical necessity for talent, innovation and problem solving.”

McCaslin, Mike
Mike McCaslin (PhD '10)

Mike McCaslin (PhD ’10) remembers his motivation for getting involved with the NCACI as a graduate research assistant (GRA) while pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology.

“First, I was originally looking for opportunities to make myself more competitive for an academic research position in a business school,” he said. “Second, I was impressed by the rigorous, multidisciplinary approach to research that the NCACI, and its partner team at Nationwide, had adopted. Third, I was excited by the opportunity to apply basic research concepts in an industry setting. Most academic researchers believe their work has real-world implications, and the NCACI offered me a chance to put my background into practice.”

McCaslin’s experience with the NCACI was so impactful — and beneficial to him and the company — that he joined Nationwide and now serves as a director in the Enterprise Analytics Office, where he oversees the NCACI and manages Nationwide’s customer satisfaction and brand health survey programs.

“The key to NCACI’s success is ensuring that Ohio State students and faculty affiliated with the center are aligned with the right projects and teams at Nationwide. NCACI members want to make a positive contribution at Nationwide, but they need to know what the company needs from them. Nationwide leaders know that the NCACI members are talented, but they need to know how, specifically, their skills can be applied to business problems.”

Said Ellis: “This program succeeds because the Ohio State graduate students who join our program bring tremendous talent, diversity of thought and a fresh perspective. Our members all have advanced and specialized skillsets that complement one another, which is where we see creativity emerge as well as innovative ways to approach business problems.”  

While McCaslin’s journey kept him at Nationwide, part of the NCACI’s allure for students at Ohio State is the support and wealth of career options available to them. Since its inception, the NCACI has provided nearly $4 million in direct support to Ohio State students. The center has engaged with 67 students from eight units and colleges from throughout the university.

Manjuan Duan earned a master’s degree in statistics and is working toward a PhD in linguistics from Ohio State and, while serving as a GRA at the center, she put her skills to work on a number of projects requiring natural language process expertise.

“I learned a lot from those projects,” she said. “Solving these real-world problems brought to me some new challenges that I’d never met before in academia. These projects also gave me precious chances to cooperate with colleagues with different backgrounds from the center and the company.”

With her background in linguistics and relevant analytics experience at the NCACI, Duan now works as a language engineer at Amazon, where she works with the Alexa AI team.

“I’m collecting and organizing high-quality language data to better train language models for Alexa,” she said. “My role requires linguistics expertise and data analysis experience, both of which have been enhanced greatly by my experience with the center.”

Sahil Kaura’s experience with the NCACI began with a desire to gain experience at a Fortune-recognized company. Now, armed with the experience as a GRA and an MBA earned from Fisher in 2017, Kaura is a regional planner in Singapore for another widely recognized company — Apple Inc.

Kaura, Sahil
Sahil Kaura (MBA '17)

“The NCACI was a unique opportunity to work with a diverse team of individuals on actual projects while completing my MBA,” he said. “Working with seasoned Nationwide employees and directors on impactful projects, and learning under the guidance of Dr. Mike McCaslin and professors like Ralph Greco added to the excitement of the learning.”

“The experience of working with a company such as Nationwide while getting my MBA was surreal and challenging, pushing me to the limits of learning and delivering results.”

At Apple, Kaura manages supply and demand for the iPhone X throughout southeast Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. And every day, he draws on lessons directly related to his time with the NCACI.

“Data crunching, storyboarding and attention to detail are some of the key aspects of my role here at Apple, and experience with the center has helped me in all these aspects,” he said. “Apple has a diverse team, and having worked with cross-disciplinary teams at NCACI helps me better accommodate and collaborate in my current position.”

“Working at NCACI helped me land multiple job offers toward the end of my MBA program. Honing my analytics skills through the center was one of the key highlights of my MBA education at Ohio State.”

“Working at NCACI helped me land multiple job offers toward the end of my MBA program. Honing my analytics skills through the center was one of the key highlights of my MBA education at Ohio State.”

Sahil Kaura (MBA '17)Regional Planner, Apple Inc.