Alumni profile: Naveen Sinha, Ph.D. ’13

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 5:00pm

Getting fitness data in shape for business

When he was in graduate school, Naveen Sinha started each Wednesday the exact same way—with a 5:30 a.m. sprint up and down the Harvard Stadium steps.

This fitness buff, who earned a Ph.D. in applied physics from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2013, is now using his scientific expertise to help others stay in shape as senior data analyst at Fitbit.

One of the first members of Fitbit’s data science and engineering team, Sinha works with internal teams to gather, process, and organize relevant data from the company’s fitness trackers, mobile app, and servers. An enormous amount of data consistently pours in from Fitbit’s 23 million active users, but it doesn’t do much good unless it is accessible to the business units that make decisions about product upgrades, new features, and marketing, he said.

“One of the aspects I really enjoy about my job is how collaborative it is. Each business unit has different types of questions they are trying to answer using data,” he said. “There are so many opportunities to use data to drive decisions.”

A career in data science is a slight departure for Sinha, an applied physicist who initially planned to pursue a research career in applied physics. With a physicist father and a childhood home near the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory, he seemed destined for a scientific career. A passion for hands-on experimentation led him to study physics as an undergraduate at Stanford University.

As a Ph.D. candidate at SEAS, Sinha worked with advisors David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, and Michael Brenner, Michael F. Cronin Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics and Professor of Physics, to study the growth of biofilms. He modeled these complex colonies of bacteria to shed light on how they cooperate.

He also worked with Weitz on the launch of Harvard’s popular undergraduate course, Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter. For Sinha, who had developed a passion for food while exploring the eclectic cuisine of Singapore, the course provided the perfect marriage of theory and application.

“A lot of fundamental concepts of physics are applicable to cooking,” he said. “For me, it was fascinating to speak with chefs about how they had a very scientific approach to cooking even though they weren’t trained as scientists. They would do experiments, look at the results, and develop recipes after many iterations.”

In addition to learning culinary concepts (Sinha began using a thermometer and metric scale to make his cooking more precise), he also gleaned soft skills, such as the ability to effectively explain scientific concepts to lay audiences.

The interdisciplinary nature of Science and Cooking motivated Sinha to pursue an integrated career path, so he entered the Startup Institute in Boston with the goal of working for a health-focused tech company. Though he had only limited training in software development, he applied for a job as a front-end software engineer at Fitbit. Instead, Sinha was hired as a data analyst.

When he joined, the Boston outpost had only 10 members—now there are more than 100 employees.

“It is a challenge to create software that can process the massive amounts of data that we have,” he said. “Our team writes a lot of the code from scratch.”

He enjoys the challenge of helping business units with a question-forward approach—understanding a business question and then determining whether there is available data to answer it, or if a new data pipeline needs to be established. He draws on his teaching experience to help others learn to use data to solve problems, and envisions a future with even more data-driven decision making at Fitbit as the company’s wearables become more prevalent and feature-rich.

But for Sinha, who still fondly recalls those vigorous Harvard Stadium workouts, the opportunity to help others be healthy is most rewarding.

“Since my time at Harvard, I’ve been drawn toward combining ideas from different fields. Fitbit is a great combination between wearable technology and fitness,” he said. “I really like the aspect that we are using data to help people make better decisions about their behavior.”