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Mary Tunstall smiling for a photo under the sun in front of green leafy trees and bushes.

How this data analytics grad excels in everything remote

By Kaitlyn Hornbuckle

In West Virginia, Mary Tunstall once avoided the New River’s dangerous rapids at all costs. After all, if the raft flipped, she’d be responsible. But being a whitewater raft guide right out of high school taught her something more important: how to say, “I can do this” to overcome obstacles.

Like the river, Tunstall’s career journey roared with twists and turns. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2009 with her bachelor’s in environmental science, she landed an internship with the U.S. Forest Service right outside of Vail, Colorado.

The draw of snowboarding in the cold and crisp Rocky Mountain snow kept her and her husband sticking around. Her journey snowballed when she found herself working the front desk at Manor Vail Lodge, a popular resort hotel with its own restaurant, outdoor pool, garden and luxury bar. Little did she know she would climb the ladder nine years later.

In 2018, Tunstall and her husband made the move to Toledo, Oregon to be closer to family. By working remotely for the same hotel as director of revenue and reservations, she had the flexibility to focus on her education.

When she discovered that Oregon State University offered a fully online master’s program in data analytics that could help her make a bigger impact in her career, she decided to take the plunge.

Mary Tunstall smiles with her rafting team. She sits in the middle wearing a blue jacket and hugging a friend.

Mary Tunstall sits in the middle (with the blue jacket) with her rafting team in West Virginia.

Tunstall is a data analytics student set to graduate with her master’s degree. On the way, she discovered that remote learning never kept her from success. In a way, it brought her closer.

“It's super important to be able to understand and draw conclusions from data. Having the ability to take that data, make meaningful conclusions from it and then be able to communicate it to others well is why data analytics is so important,” she said.

Floating through rough rapids

Completing an online master’s degree while working remotely full-time was no easy feat. Courses ranged from statistics to learning the R computer programming language and advanced mathematics skills. “I hadn’t taken calculus in 15 years, so I really struggled with the probability distributions and hazard functions,” she said.

After getting the lowest score she had ever earned on a quiz, she remembered what she told herself back in the day as a raft guide: “I can do this.” She pushed forward, and her professor’s support turned her struggle into a milestone.

“I never thought it would be possible to work with data like this — it’s a game changer.”

When she felt blocked by the low quiz score in the applied survival analysis course, Associate Professor Yanming Di steered her in a direction that mattered more.

“Once I got over the grade I got on this quiz, I was able to take what I learned from him from those biweekly office hours discussions, assemble everything I learned, post it to the class discussion board and ask for clarification,” she said.

Discussion boards are a great way for both students and professors to post online messages that everyone in the course can read. Taking advantage of this format, Tunstall assembled all the different mathematical functions, explained what they did and posted them to the discussion board. If her work was a little bit off, she saw feedback from her professor fast.

Tunstall holds a cute little white dog with her family in their backyard, smiling for a photo.

One of the perks of being an Ecampus student is being able to spend time with family. From left to right is Mary Tunstall's mother, father, and her husband, Paul.

As she tackled each concept, Tunstall’s passion for data analytics blossomed in the applied survival analysis course. Analyzing the effects of a treatment on patients with a liver disease called primary biliary cholangitis was her favorite project.

“For my project, I wanted to explore the effects of the treatment on each morphological stage of the disease. I wanted to see if there was an actual correlation between the timing of the treatment and the survival rate for each of the four stages,” she said.

Utilizing data sets in this way can reveal whether it’s beneficial to take the treatment for a disease in stage one versus stage three. The effects of treatment may vary depending on the stage, but the only way to see this is to look at the data.

“I never thought it would be possible to work with data like this — it’s a game changer,” Tunstall said. “I thought you had to have a medical degree to even touch data like that. But you don’t. So it’s been a really eye-opening experience — I don't know a lot about the disease and what causes it, but I can look at this data set and make recommendations that might be better for patients.”

Embarking on her next adventure

This summer, Tunstall is attending the in-person graduation ceremony in Corvallis. After that, she’s leaving some doors open.

“Ultimately what I’d like to do is land a career that’s more impactful. I would love to work for the federal government in some sort of capacity, especially in environmental sciences,” she said. “If it exists, being the director of data analysis with an organization like the Environmental Protection Agency would be a dream.”

She also credits her partner for standing by her side and making earning her master’s degree less stressful. “My husband, Paul, has been the one that’s been supporting me and cooking dinner when I’m busy working on my classes,” she said.

After celebrating this milestone with her family, she plans to leverage the skills she learned to improve her current role at the hotel. This includes automating some of the manual tasks she currently handles, allowing her to focus more on strategy and less time on tactics.

“I do revenue management as part of my job, which involves monthly forecasts for room revenue and analyzing data to make decisions. A lot of what I do right now is manual, so I’m really interested in implementing an exponential smoothing process,” she said. After she gets permission from IT to do so, she would automate the process it takes to predict the future using past data sets.

Being able to make these predictions can help the hotel make better financial decisions so that people can still enjoy the Rocky Mountains in luxury for years to come.

Her journey from rafting to survival analysis revealed endless possibilities, and Tunstall is along for the ride. To make a difference in the world, sometimes all it takes is saying, “I can do this.”

Mary Tunstall gives a peace sign while smiling with a group of friends on a raft in a river.

Mary Tunstall poses on a raft (on the left giving a peace sign) after going on a river trip with her team.