Liliana Cruz-Lopez Worked Hard to Overcome Obstacles

Liliana Cruz-Lopez
Liliana Cruz-Lopez

Liliana Cruz-Lopez worked as a summer intern for Energy & Resources Solutions, an engineering and energy consulting firm, where she used  data-science to conserve energy in New York City.

Liliana was part of a data-analytics team that retrieved data from light meters on commercial and residential buildings. The team used machine-learning algorithms and mathematical models to analyze the data. Her project was part of the Brooklyn-Queens Neighborhood Program, an initiative by Con Edison to save 2,000 kilowatts of energy in the area.

She first took an interest in data science when she enrolled in a computer-programming class at the College of Staten Island, where she earned an undergraduate degree. Dazzled by the lighting-fast computations of algorithms, she knew then she wanted to work in the field of data science. So after graduating from the college she enrolled in DSI’s certificate program, where she excelled and later transferred into the master’s program.  

Before arriving at the institute though, Liliana had to overcome some major obstacles. Her family left Mexico for America when she was 13 and struggled  financially. Liliana had to work to help her mother pay the rent and at one point even she withdrew from college to work more hours. She is also a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that shielded immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation.

At Columbia, she is president of the Diversity in Graduate Engineering office, which supports underrepresented students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. In this interview, Liliana talks about her internship, her struggles and her abiding conviction that data science can be used to improve the quality of life for all of us.   


Did you enjoy your internship?

The internship was educational and fun. It showed me that data science can be used to reduce energy consumption and enhance sustainability. I believe data science is the key to a better future in many fields, including environmentalism.  

What data science techniques did you use?

As part of the data analytics team, I worked closely with other analysts in cleaning energy data and implementing machine-learning algorithms including K-means to pre-process data. I used different programming languages such as Python for data manipulation and R for exploratory analysis and data visualization. I had learned many techniques in my DSI courses, especially Machine Learning and Exploratory Data Analysis, that were helpful during my internship.

How did you get interested in energy conservation?

In 2013, I had interned with Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that improves the sustainability of New York’s affordable housing stock. It was a steep learning curve - I had to not only learn about energy efficiency and building systems but also about affordable housing. I investigated signs of energy waste and code violation in apartments as well as faulty systems in boiler rooms. I helped store findings and energy data in a database, analyzed the data and produced audit reports that included opportunities for energy savings.

You are also a teacher at Fusion, a private high school in Manhattan.  What do you teach?

I teach Spanish, algebra, geometry, precalculus, calculus and statistics. In terms of programming, I teach Basic Programming, Introduction to C++/Java, Object-Oriented Programming, Data Structures/Algorithms, Introduction to SQL and Introduction to Operating Systems.  

How do you balance work and school?

I’m a full-time teacher and a part-time DSI student. I take two classes per semester. It’s extremely hard to do both, and If I didn’t enjoy I couldn’t do it. I really enjoy teaching. I love making a positive impact on young people. Similarly, I love my classes at DSI because what I’m learning is applicable to real life and to how things work. I’m learning, for instance, how self-driving cars work, which is part of our future.

What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

I have faced many challenges in my journey, such as the lack of resources to continue my studies to discrimination for being a minority in the tech industry. Financial struggle has also played a big role in my life. When I was an undergraduate, I had to work full time to pay my bills. I worked as a hostess, a waitress and finally as a manager in a restaurant. I was commuting from Brooklyn to Staten Island for school while working in Manhattan. So my commute, all combined, was four hours. At one point, I had to stop taking classes because I couldn’t afford it.  My mom had some economic hardships, so I had to work more hours to help her pay rent.

Can you talk about your background?

I grew up in a rural village in Puebla, Mexico. My family moved to New York City when I was 13-years old. I went to Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, after which I attended the College of Staten Island. Yet the biggest opportunity I was given was DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy that allows 800,000 immigrants who entered the country as children (known as dreamers) to receive a period of deferred action from deportation. This status changed my life completely. It allows me to continue my studies and have a better job. As of now, DACA is in jeopardy, so I’m motivated to take every opportunity that is presented to me. My family is comprised of my two siblings and my mother. My family has always encouraged me to follow my dreams and do what makes me happy.

What kind of work do you do as president of the Diversity in Graduate Engineering office? How’d you get involved in the group?

My main role is to help minorities succeed and create opportunities for them in engineering and science. We host speakers and career and networking events. We support each other to succeed in classes and professionally. I got involved in the group because I didn’t see many students in my classes who were Hispanic or minorities - people who look like me. I talked to the assistant dean of engineering and she told me about the diversity office and said I could interact there with students of similar background. So I joined and eventually worked my way up to president.  

How have the struggles in your life shaped you?

I have faced many challenges in life but I’ve learned plenty from each one. I have learned, however, that hard work pays off. Today I am completing a master’s program - a first in my family. I’ve also learned that sky's the limit. I plan on moving forward and sharing my knowledge with others, especially with youth and people in my community.  

What are your plans for after you graduate?

I am still learning about different industries as I’m finishing my degree. I always want to use data to improve the lives of other people. So my plan is to work for an organization that uses data science to make a positive impact on communities.


-- By Robert Florida

550 W. 120th St., Northwest Corner 1401, New York, NY 10027    212-854-5660
©2018 Columbia University