Math was never Jeremy Guinta’s strong suit — so of course he made it an integral part of his career.

“It actually took me quite a few classes over the course of my life to get it, and it didn’t finally click until I was in my 20s,” he said with a laugh. “But statistics has always felt so applicable to me — I love how the world is awash in numbers if you have the literacy to understand and interpret them.”

That’s why Guinta — who had always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his Italian immigrant mother and two older sisters who all graduated from UCLA — decided to enroll in the university’s master of applied statistics program, even though the math made him a little nervous.

“I was so grateful that all the statistics professors were so helpful, genuine and kind — Professor Nicolas Christou, for example, had office hours every day and even on Saturdays, and basically dragged me through mathematical statistics,” he said. “And I’ll never forget Professor Vivian Lew at our first class saying, ‘You all look tired and hungry. I’m bringing pizza in every class from now on.’ And she did! It all just felt like the faculty was willing to put extra effort and time to make sure we were successful.”

Guinta, who graduated from UCLA in 2018, is now managing director of consulting firm Ankura’s Los Angeles office. A key aspect of his work includes advising trial attorneys, litigators and expert testifiers by using his statistical expertise to aid with data management, complex data analysis and calculation of damages.

Another key aspect? Mentoring future experts in the field, including a UCLA statistics and data science undergraduate who happened to be involved in the annual American Statistical Association DataFest at UCLA. The event offers participants opportunities to network with expert mentors and volunteers, as well as a competition where teams of undergraduates get 48 hours to find and concisely communicate a creative, effective insight from a huge, complex data set.

For example, a few years back, teams were tasked with parsing a major concert and venue ticketing provider’s data to figure out how best to market concert tickets. One team developed a “Bermuda Triangle”-inspired model that identified an area of the U.S. where people were traveling long distances to get to and suggested a more efficient, accessible and lucrative flow for concert geographic planning. The innovative way they thought about this data and the impactful graphic they created surprised and impressed the company’s representative on hand — and attendees.

“It amazes me every year I’ve participated — whether I’m serving as a mentor or a corporate sponsor or a judge — how phenomenal the work of these passionate, brilliant students is,” Guinta said. “Even with all my experience and skillset, there is no way I could walk in there and put things together as well as they do in the time they are given. The whole concept of DataFest and the talent of these students dazzles me.”

In addition to the student competitors, when Guinta serves as a judge at this year’s DataFest, which will be held on campus from April 26–28, he will be in good company.

“We are so proud that our alumni — many of whom also participated in DataFest as students themselves — love to return each year to be part of the festivities and pass their wisdom along to the current students,” said Linda Zanontian, statistics and data science continuing lecturer and associate director of ASA DataFest at UCLA. “Any time a student asks one of our alumni what they should make sure to do before graduating UCLA, the first response is always ‘participate in DataFest’!” 

Although Guinta might not have been as focused on the field as these current students when he was their age — he shares with a smile how challenging it was for him to make his first-ever 8 a.m. statistics undergraduate class at UC Davis — he has found his ideal niche.

The high-stakes, pressure-filled thrill of testifying in court cases where he pits his statistical expertise against the opposing side’s is adrenalizing. Not only does he have to be perfect in his work, but he has to understand, interpret and relay enormously complicated data so that it can be meaningfully understood by a wider audience.

But even for those of us who will never attain his fluency in the field, Guinta urges the importance for everyone to be aware of the power of statistics — for good or otherwise.

“Numbers can be used to lie very, very easily, and there are many people who look to take advantage of that. There’s a saying I like, ‘if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything,’” he said. “As individuals, being able to cut through any misrepresentations and to know how to think critically about numbers is powerful. I love how the students of DataFest really exemplify this commitment to using this power to make a positive, real difference in the world.”

► Some of this year’s competitors share their perspective:

Kevin Hamakawa, co-chair, DataFest student planning committee
Third-year statistics and data science major

“DataFest represents what the statistics and data science department is about: a place for learning, a place for innovation and creativity, and a place for community and inclusion. I remember entering the competition as a freshman with hardly any knowledge of who my teammates were or even what data science was. However, I left the competition having learned so much about how to tackle a data science problem, create clear deliverables and work together with a team. More importantly, I was able to meet a close group of friends and memories that I will forever cherish.”

Irene Zhang, co-chair, DataFest student planning committee
Third-year statistics and data science major and public health minor

“Being in this setting where you’re given a huge, messy dataset and no instructions, DataFest teaches you how to properly work with data. This year, we wanted to focus on a sense of community and bring a sense of excitement to DataFest. Kevin and I really got so lucky with our committee members as they had so many fun ideas on how to advertise the event, plan and even get dinner afterward.”

Katie Munteanu
Fourth-year statistics and data science major

“Data Fest is important to me because it’s an opportunity to test the skills I’ve developed through my coursework. I think I will learn a lot through the experience and also get to network with alumni and company recruiters, which is important to me as a job-hunting senior.”

Daniel Mendelevitch
Third-year data theory major

“DataFest is really fun! Its definitely a bonding experience — I became a lot closer with everyone on my team from last year after DataFest. I’m really excited by neural networks and deep learning!”

Bonnie Gu
Winter 2024 graduate with a data science and statistics major and mathematics minor

“My passion for data science and statistics stems from its vast applications in virtually any and every field. There is so much opportunity to gain insights into the world around us, and I think that’s part of what makes DataFest especially valuable!”