Aspiring data scientist helps research heroin use, biking infrastructure

February 02, 2023

Simon Fraser University economics major Usama Naeem Toor was paid to assist professors with research in crime, environmental and transportation economics.

When choosing a major, Toor was “drawn to the rigorous analytical approach of economics, as it allows for the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods to understand and solve real-world problems.”

He liked his studies but wanted to get involved in actual research.

So he applied for the Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) program, which provides paid opportunities for undergraduate students to be part of a major research project, supervised by a university professor.

Toor was hired for two USRA projects with Dr. Hendrik Wolff focused on extracting bike infrastructure data from various sources from cities all over the world like New York, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. He worked with a team of research assistants and learned about advanced modelling techniques. He helped develop automated Python modules to acquire up-to-date data for Wolff’s graduate-level research assistants.

Later, Econ 334 (Data Visualization and Economic Analysis) and Econ 435 (Econometric Methods) sparked his passion for data science. He was inspired by Dr. Kevin Schnepel’s expertise and enthusiasm and his application of data analysis to study crime. When Toor saw an opportunity to undertake a third USRA position with Dr. Schnepel, collecting and analyzing data on heroin usage and legislation in the United States, he was thrilled.

Toor says, “My experiences with the USRA program were extremely valuable and allowed me to gain research experience I might not have gotten otherwise through my degree program.”

Working as a RA also taught Toor how to present his findings in a clear and concise manner. Being able to communicate research to stakeholders is an essential skill for a data scientist or economic analyst.

The program didn’t come without challenges – Toor had to learn to manage his time effectively to balance his RA work with a full-time co-op placement. At the same time, he was learning how to conduct literature reviews and analyze complex journal articles. To succeed he sought support from his mentors and colleagues.

He says the RA positions have helped him “become a more resilient and adaptable researcher” and prepared him for challenges he may face in his future career.

He strongly recommends the USRA program to other undergrads and suggests students choose a project that aligns with their interests and career goals. He says, "once you are accepted into the program, be proactive in your research and take advantage of the resources available to you." He also advises asking for help when needed. 

In 2022, the SFU Department of Economics and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) awarded a total of $64,348 in total to fund 10 USRAs with economics faculty members.

If you are a student interested in a USRA opportunity, please see our current postings here.