Madison Stodola on clear choices and strong communication

Rice senior is campus-wide student director of undergraduate peer career advising program.

Madison Stodola

When faced with a major decision or project, Madison Stodola thinks deeply, researches broadly, and chooses the most logical option that she can back up with data. As a rising senior at Rice University, she changed one of her majors from Operations Research back to Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM) to graduate a semester early.

“I got married during spring break my junior year. My husband is based in D.C. and after spending time there over the summer, I decided I liked living with him,” she quipped. “In all seriousness, I arrived at Rice knowing I wanted to apply math to humans. I love how CAAM has clear approaches to solving problems, but opportunity for creativity as you take into account every problem’s situational context.

“I am also fascinated by people and enjoy studying the mind, so I was drawn to psychology. After realizing the combination of math and psychology almost fulfilled the requirements for a cognitive science major, I added it as well. Talking with my advisor, I realized I could also benefit from the data science minor; data science gives me skills and software I need to get the job tomorrow, whereas CAAM instills problem solving and theory that future-proof me against changing technologies and skills landscape’”

She was just as methodical in her selection of leadership and work opportunities as with her degrees. Stodola was hired as a research assistant by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy even before she arrived for O-Week and continued throughout her freshman year. Although the pandemic created some disruption, she still secured and completed a summer internship while engaging with leadership opportunities across campus, including the Student Center and the Doerr Institute for New Leaders.

“As part of my leadership training, I completed the Clifton Strengthsfinder assessment and discovered one of my greatest strengths is Input, which describes the way I seek to collect all available information about environments and projects that I find myself part of. For example, during my first semester on campus, I spent a lot of time gathering information about all the opportunities and ways I could engage.

“When spring rolled around, I consulted my list and applied for the roles in which I felt I could have the greatest impact. That is how I became one of Martel College’s undergraduate peer career advisors and have now progressed to being the campuswide Student Director of the program, in partnership with the Center for Career Development (CCD),” said Stodola.

Working with so many different students at the CCD and helping them learn to communicate their interests and unique abilities – particularly during the stressful and physical-distancing days of 2020 and 2021 – felt rewarding to Stodola. She also utilized the advising services herself.

When she inquired about careers that would allow her to pursue her twin passions of math and people, her CCD advisor suggested consulting. Stodola said, “For some people, consulting is all about travel, money, and prestige. But I was drawn to it for the systems analysis, Excel sheets, and opportunity to improve people’s lives.

“Working as a consultant is like being a ‘business doctor’ – interviewing with ethos the people who are struggling with a business problem, using a variety of analytical tools to diagnose where the pain is or how it is growing, and writing a prescription for possible solutions, which the client can then choose to implement or ignore.”

All her interactions as a consultant require strong communication and teamwork skills, which she acquired through her internships as well as in group-based courses like the data science capstone class.

Recalling the way the class’s capstone projects evolved, Stodola said, “Many students focused on the design and build stages but lacked experience articulating their work to a broader audience. In our two-minute weekly status updates, some groups would go too in-depth on the details. The rest of us would have to ask, ‘What does that mean? We don’t know your project like you do.’

“You have to pull up to a higher level of abstraction and understand what sticks out from the bird’s eye view when presenting to audiences outside your immediate project team. Unless the chairs are filled with people already familiar with the nitty gritty of your research or work, you have to ask yourself, ‘What does my audience need to know?’, then present to that level of decision-maker. Consulting will quickly acclimate you to articulating ideas at your client’s level of expertise.”

Stodola doesn’t shy away from including formulas and data in her presentation when it is appropriate for the audience. She said businesspeople often want to know about the business growth or financial impact, whereas technical audiences are curious about the equations and the process to the answer.

“Communicating with clients is all about knowing your audience. Whether their issue is increasing revenue, identifying synergies, or making their supply chain more efficient, you need to begin with the bottom line, so they have context for everything else you will share. Start simple and speak with confidence. You are the expert who gathered and analyzed the data. Say something like, ‘This will increase your margin by x dollars.’ Then share the high-level actions they can take to accomplish that,” Stodola said.

Even when teams are composed of brilliant individuals, they can struggle to communicate effectively. Stodola said that is why psychological safety — the idea that in a conversation or space you trust others enough to be vulnerable and are not afraid of being humiliated if you share ideas, questions, doubts, or struggles – is so important. She believes this kind of environment is critical to the success of teams and organizations, so that employees can be honest about their project status and their needs.

“No one should be afraid that their idea might be shot down, or that they might be negatively judged for asking for time off to nurse a sick family member,” said Stodola. “But depending on your boss, these conversations can be daunting to navigate. Creating psychologically safe spaces helps build healthy and efficient teams. One way supervisors can initiate this kind of environment is by being the first to share something personal or vulnerable, even if it’s something small like being sad to drop off their oldest for the first day of kindergarten that morning. Sharing these details helps begin building meaningful relationships.”

In her recent summer internship with Accenture, Stodola had the opportunity to grow her consulting and communication skills even further as she helped develop one of Accenture’s solutions related to the Metaverse.

“Imagine taking a fluffy amorphous idea and turning it into concrete actions and numbers we can work with and solve,” she said. “Oh, that is just what I learned in my CAAM classes!

“I had this marvelous opportunity to work with managing directors and subject matter experts, but I also had to be clear and concise in how I was talking with them. I learned quickly they don’t need to know my details or download a spreadsheet; they just needed to know that ‘x resulted in y at this stage’ and how we will take that implementation to the next stage. The communication skills I developed at Rice proved to be invaluable this summer.”