Rob Liebscher, PGSS 1994

Why did you join PGSS? Was it a pivotal point for you?
I’ll try to remember because I went to PGSS way back in 1994… it definitely was pivotal. I loved it so much that I returned to TA in 1999, the summer between undergrad and grad school. One thing the experience taught me is that even though scientific subjects are divided pedagogically into boxes of biology, chemistry, physics, and so on, there is so much mixing between them: Biophysics, bioinformatics, cognitive science, materials science… there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary research and in college you don’t have to study just one thing.
As an undergrad, I was at the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State and studied computer science. While I was there, I started to hear the siren songs of neuroscience and artificial intelligence. I became very interested in how both natural and artificial brains work. I talked about my interests with as many professors as I could, and a few of them pointed me to an interdisciplinary program at the University of California at San Diego, which they thought would be a perfect fit for me. A couple of them had done their doctoral and postdoctoral work there. I didn’t think my educational journey was over yet, so I moved out west.
I did a PhD at UCSD and mainly learned how to be a scientist. My dissertation focused heavily on machine learning. The field of data science didn’t have a name at the time, but what I was doing was data science, and eventually I recognized it as an employable skill.
The original data scientists were just people who had academic training in the sciences but didn’t really fit into a traditional academic setting. They went to industry and found that the skills they learned in graduate school tended to be really useful in industry as well as academia: how to research a problem, formulate a hypothesis, design experiments, collect observations, draw conclusions from them, communicate a story to an audience and determine where to go next. So I’ve been a data scientist at Adobe in various departments for about 16 years now.
How was it to start in data science so early and see it grow?
It just sort of coalesced over a decade, and the people practicing it came from different backgrounds. I’ve worked with a bunch of PhDs in fields not directly related to computer science. There’s chemistry, chemical engineering, astrophysics, linguistics… the common thread is that their doctoral programs taught them how to think scientifically. I think that the most important part of data science training is just working with large amounts of data, regardless of the type of data. Many of the skills you learn will translate.
Various industries recognized that there’s a group of people out there that are good at synthesizing data and using it to make predictions, and those skills are very useful thing to have in a business, particularly as so much commerce is now conducted online, where data is easily gathered.
Did you always know what type of career you wanted while you were in school? What was your journey like?
Early on, I was just motivated to “learn all the things.” All of them. I wanted to be every kind of scientist. But knowing that a computer science degree would get me a job if I decided not to go into to academia… I thought that was a prudent thing to study. I could always use those skills in another area. And again, I picked up this love of neuroscience and that eventually branched into linguistics, psychology, and all sorts of related fields.
It was very helpful to have good mentors and just talk with a lot of professors in undergrad and in grad school. At some point during my graduate education, I decided that academia was not for me. My advisor wasn’t too pleased with that, but eventually he respected my decision. I kind of had a feeling I would eventually wind up in Silicon Valley. I really love the frenetic pace here and the attitude that you can’t wait for the future to arrive–you have to invent it.
In your current role, can you describe your favorite parts about it and what keeps you motivated or keeps you at the same company for all these years?
I feel very, very fortunate to work for Adobe. Not many people get to work at a place where they believe very strongly in the mission statement. If we consider the two pinnacles of human achievement to be art and science, then I’m in a great spot because I get to apply science at the company that makes the tools that people use to create art. So there are very few companies I would actually want to work for because I don’t believe in their mission. Adobe is one of those companies I truly believe in the mission of, and it can be summarized in three words: “Creativity for all.” Particularly with some of the generative AI magic–what we’re building now really means that people with little to no artistic vision can create things that are beautiful. (I count myself in that camp.) The company has reinvented itself many times, and is doing so again in the new age of generative AI, and I’ve been able to move around to different departments and do different things.
Currently, I am supporting the marketing department despite having absolutely no formal training in marketing. I’ve picked up everything since I’ve been here, and I really enjoy it because it blends art and science. Highly-skilled artists are behind the best advertisements. The science side comes in determining things like what to include in an email, who to send it to and when–it’s all just one giant math problem, which is where we employ predictive models. I’m too old to code–I still try to, but I can’t keep up. Fortunately I get to manage a team of machine learning engineers. They build models to measure and predict things.
Did you invent a board game? Did I see that correctly on your LinkedIn?
My partner and I co-created it, yes.
Can you talk about that more?
True story: I was on a cruise to the British Virgin Islands. We were docked at Tortola. On the other side of the pier, a Disney cruise ship pulled up. They were playing loud Disney songs “at us,” and appeared to be having more fun than we were. I was sitting with some strangers, talking about nothing, watching this Disney dreadnought pull in. Someone (might have been me; I don’t remember) asked, “Everyone on our ship versus everyone else on their ship… who would win in a fight?” We played out various scenarios: they have more children, who have more energy, but they’re not as big. We have more older people, some of whom look like they can fight. They have more people overall, but if projectiles are allowed, we could probably throw things faster. And maybe our ship has a torpedo stashed somewhere? Anyway, we never got to the bottom of it, but somehow out of that, my partner and I made a game called Bruise Cruise.
Briefly, the lore is this: it’s set in the Caribbean in the year 2042, after a series of “unfathomable events” that we never explain have caused everyone to lose their minds. You are the Admiral (formerly CEO) of a cruise line. Cruising now involves not just going to tourist traps, but also naval warfare. So it’s a game that combines cruising and bruising. One side effect of playing is that you’ll learn the geography of the Caribbean.
Did you create it from the ground up?
Yes. Part of the reason for undertaking this project is that we wanted to know what it would take to start from nothing and get to a viable product that we could sell, so we started a company to produce the game. We designed it using Adobe’s creative products. My partner is far better with things like Photoshop and Illustrator, so she handled the creative work. We went through many prototypes and had lots of people play it to get the rules and design just right. We worked closely with a board game manufacturer to print a full run of copies in Shenzhen, China and ship them to the US, where we distributed them to shipping facilities. We did all the marketing for it and now you can go buy it on our website, on Amazon or on Walmart. It makes a great and weird holiday gift. Tell you what, if you go to bruisecruisegame.com and you put in the code PGSS25, that’ll get you 25% off of Bruise Cruise.
Do you have any advice for people going into their next chapter of life?
Make connections. Meet as many people as you can. Find interesting people and talk to them about anything. You never know when those conversations will come in handy or when that connection will be useful for you. It’s important to spend time in the lab and to hone your skills, but making those connections is also very important.
Also, don’t sweat your college decision. In 15 years, it won’t matter–you’ll be working alongside people that went just about everywhere. If you fall in love with a particular college, go for it. If you’re not quite sure what you want to do and you really just want to “learn all the things,” my advice would be to go to a relatively large school because you’ll have many different opportunities. Lots of different majors, many labs and professors working on all sorts of things you can’t even fathom right now. Eventually you’ll find a lab or a field that really sings to you, but you’ll have an easier time of it if you have a huge number of options. Just go big. But if you’re absolutely settled on something you know you want to do, and it’s at a small school, then go for that.
Throughout your college and learning experience, did you do a lot of lab work or internships?
Working in a computer science “lab” usually just involves sitting in front of a computer. It’s not wet work or bench work or anything like that. I had a great experience when I returned to Carnegie Mellon one summer during my undergrad years and worked at Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. It’s a joint program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and they bring in undergrads from all over the place. You come and you’re given a stipend and you get to work with some professors there.
Many schools have programs like this. You don’t need to stay on your own campus–in addition to lab-based programs, internships are a great way to get experience in a corporate environment, and they tend to pay much more, if that sort of thing interests you. Always try to do something interesting each summer that expands your knowledge base.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as a mentor within PGSS?
I had a fantastic experience in my first year as a mentor. My mentee and I talked via videoconference every two to three weeks throughout the school year on the weekends. We worked on lots of different things: writing college essays, interview preparation, writing a letter to a professor he was interested in working with, science fair video presentations…. and sometimes we just talked about the enterprise of science, or what books we were reading. We formed such a close relationship that when we were supposed to formally stop talking, we just kept going. We were supposed to stop in April or May, but now it’s September, and our plan is to continue to catch up about once a month. He’s a freshman at Penn and is going to do great things.
My advice to anyone who is eligible: be a mentor. It’s a rewarding experience.