Leonids Aleksandrovs, Data Scientist and Circus Actor

Hi, my name is Leonids Aleksandrovs, and I am a data scientist, currently managing the advanced analytics platforms and some data science industrialization streams in a leading pharmaceutical company. I was born and raised in Latvia. I moved to Aalst, Belgium five years ago to start my PhD. That was rather a dice roll than a definitive choice. I had sent about 15 to 20 applications to PhD grants and positions located in maybe a dozen countries. I passed the interviews and was accepted into the University of Antwerp. The most unique thing about this city is the annual carnival that is quite an impressive event, and can be a wild party.

Since childhood, I was keen on everything related to computers. However, I did poorly in mathematics and statistics at school. During my studies, I failed several exams on the probability theory, statistics, and on statistical data processing which nearly had me expelled from the university. It pushed me to seriously study and read more of the subject, as well as do some more demos. Surprisingly, I started liking the subject, passed the exams, and, after a while, even started to do some lecturing.

Before I became a data scientist, I grew up in a family of circus actors. In fact, it is still my parent’s main business. I started practicing at the age of 5, and went fully professional at the age of 11. From then until I was about 23, it was pretty much a full time job. I was apart of almost every act. I had to do acrobatics, equilibrium, balance, tap dancing, juggling, or illusion in any given part of the show. That is quite typical for clown acts; they usually integrate a lot of circus disciplines. I spent a few seasons with travelling circuses in Denmark, Sweden, and Austria. There have also been fixed circuses and stages in Latvia, Belgium, and France.

It was difficult at first to combine my love for computers and my stage work. I have been into computer technology as a hobby since I was 12. During off work times, I dedicated a huge part of my time to my PC. The motivation to apply for a computer science grad program became quite apparent a few years later. Combining both tracks became a challenge, since I started to work part time as a system administrator, study, and do stage acts at the same time. I had to ask to postpone summer university examinations because June was circus high season, and I had to leave the country to start performing. However, that was pretty normal during the school year as well. Sometimes I was covering the entire school year material in just 4 months.

There are so many stories from my time in the circus; it is hard to choose the best. One time, I had a new partner participating in one illusion act. Before slicing my body into two parts, my partner had to give some “anesthesia” by hitting me on the head with a gigantic hammer, which was actually plushy and soft. However, its handle was made from bamboo. During the act, my partner slightly missed the right angle, and I had a full power bamboo stick hit my head with a loud, clunky sound. It hurt very badly, and, being surprised, I shouted, “ouch!” However, the audience was laughing and applauding, thinking that I was a great actor.

Another time, I was apart of an act that celebrated the birthdays of kids who were at the show. There was a tradition to give a gift to the kids in the centre of the arena, in front of the public, close to the end of the performance. I was only 12 back then, and I was the one giving gifts while the ringmaster was announcing the birthdays. Typically a gift to a girl was provided with “imitated” kiss, you know, something cute, and the audience liked it and laughed sometimes. There was a long trail of birthday girls in the beginning, and suddenly there was a birthday boy. I was standing in front of him, and I gave him the gift. Then the ringmaster started say something in German, because we were in Austria, expecting me to do something for the boy. Well, I did not know any German. I was standing there paralyzed, thinking there was no way he wanted me to kiss the boy. But he kept insisting in front of the public. Well, finally, I kissed the boy, and the public exploded. The artists were all laughing, but I did not get it. Finally, when we went backstage, one of artists said to me, “Leo, do you know what the ringmaster asked you to do?” “No,” I replied. “He asked you to shake the boy’s hand,” he said. Since then I started to learn German.

I think performing has definitely helped to increase my communication and presentation skills. When presenting I do not care much if the audience is ten, one hundred, or one thousand people, because I am quite used to both large and small audiences, as well as to their attitudes. Creativity is hard to measure, but this career forces you to stay creative.

 Most people do not believe me when I tell them I was in the circus, until I show them a video. I tend to prefer my tech work anyway. Science, and working at the university while doing a PhD, is definitely more fun than the circus. Although, I must confess, the PhD defence was quite an act.

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