Laura Sime, Head of Catastrophe Modeling Support, AXIS Re

Laura Sime, Head of Catastrophe Modeling Support, AXIS Re

Please include details about your educational background and what sparked your interest in atmospheric or related sciences.

I started my college career like many others - in a different major: Aerospace Engineering. I realized I wasn't as passionate about planes as some of my cohorts and the prospect of a traditional engineering career, where you might spend months designing a small pipe within a wing, just didn't appeal to me. I loved my school though and I had already made it through differential equations and dynamics before I changed majors.

In hindsight, I probably had some passion for weather growing up in Southern California, where we have somewhat limited interesting weather of our own. I watched a lot of The Weather Channel with my dad as a child. I'm now living in Illinois and I really appreciate getting to live somewhere where I can experience and unnecessarily explain a greater number of weather phenomena such as "seasons."

My undergraduate meteorology education set me up with a strong foundation in critical thinking, problem solving, and how stuff works. The programming languages that I learned in school (Matlab, IDL) aren't the ones I use now (SQL, R, Python, Tableau), but learning *how to learn* a programming language and problem solve the real issues are very important. While I don't need to know how to launch a weather balloon or properly setup an anemometer, a knowledge of meteorological measurements has imbued in me an appreciation for modern tools, a desire for automation, and a pragmatic sense of practicality that are very important to my work and growth.

What was your first job in the field and how did you end up in the job you are in now?

It's okay not to have a job lined up right after graduation. Your degree also does not entitle you to a job. I really want to highlight how important these two things are when you're searching for your first role.

I spent six months looking for my first job after I graduated. I applied to anything and everything under the sun, including positions where meteorology was a footnote or not even listed in the job posting.

Meteorology was a footnote (suggested major) in the job I ended up getting - Data Management Analyst at Farmers Insurance, which became Catastrophe Modeling Analyst. I didn't know anything about insurance (let alone reinsurance) when I started my job in the Reinsurance team of a major Insurance company. I didn't know what an actuary was until I looked up the title of my interviewer. I learned on the job.

I also had an offer to a PhD program, but I'd had enough school and wanted to enter the private industry. I have no regrets about pursuing my private industry path without a higher degree. My industry knowledge is more valuable to my career trajectory now.

For my work/life balance, I needed to relocate out of Los Angeles after three years with Farmers. It was a great place to start my career. Insurance and Reinsurance is a relationship business. However, I applied to my current role somewhat at random, but have been allowed to organically grow my responsibilities, and I love that about AXIS.

What opportunities did you pursue that you knew would be beneficial to securing a job in the profession?

To be perfectly honest, I don't think I was thinking specifically about my career post graduation enough as a student, and many things were only realized to be useful in hindsight. I had a couple of research internships on campus and one summer internship which took me far from home and out of my comfort zone. I was also a teaching assistant for an aviation weather course.

The research experiences more directly prepared me for graduate school, although I never went down that path, it opened doors for me in that direction. However, what was most important for me to take away from each work experience was the ability to describe the results I delivered, my contribution to the team, and generally talk intelligently about the experience in future interviews. The research I did on wildfire and land use, for instance, translated well to conversations about insurance in California.

More generally, when you build your resume, think about giving space to the things you want to talk about that are relevant to the position you're applying for. That also means customizing your resume to different jobs. Some jobs I applied to as a recent grad, I had to get a bit creative on how my first work experience as a postal clerk was applicable. Maybe I took that job off my resume entirely, in favor of a more relevant class project where I used a good software.

What other courses/skills beyond the required math and science courses do you think would be the most helpful to individuals wanting a career in your profession?

Insurance is a very interesting industry, because with the exception of actuaries and a few specific programs, most people don't go to school with insurance in mind. My company has tons of people from a diverse background, and I love that. I'm one of less than a dozen people with an atmospheric science background, although there's lots of physical sciences, business, finance, econ, and other STEM majors represented, as well as others throughout the company. Many like me, learned the insurance part on the job.

There are some wonderful student professional organizations that can give you a head start in this direction, such as Gamma Iota Sigma and others.

As for classes, some amount of programming experience is good to have. The business world still runs on Excel, so learning how to use Pivot Tables and VBA is valuable, as is presenting your findings clearly and concisely. Catastrophe modeling has a lot of semi- or unstructured data and associated cleaning activities. If you have worked with cleaning up weather station time series data, that work is definitely applicable. Business or finance classes are also useful. An intro to insurance would be even better if it's available at your school. Whatever you take, find passion in it.

What is your typical day on the job like?

Each day for me is a bit different. That's part of what I like about my job. The role that I currently hold is somewhat unique - I have a mix of job duties ranging from routine, to innovative, with hiring and site management thrown in for good measure.

Cat modeling functions vary from company to company. Depending on if you're on insurance or reinsurance, there will be different busy and quiet seasons during the year. The busy seasons come with deadlines and late nights.

The scope of teams may vary or overlap with other functions depending on the company. Generally the work consists of putting together data into reports and the cat modeling software, running the models, and evaluating the results. The results are reported to stakeholders within the company, or prepared for external exhibits. Projects might seek to enhance how data is pulled into the model or quantified in a report, or how the model is handling a particular characteristic. Is the model's profile of losses as square footage increases comparable to what the claims history shows, for instance. A white paper or powerpoint would the most lengthy outcome of a project I have worked on. Brevity is a skill too.

I use SQL and Excel along with licensed catastrophe modeling software for most of my day to day work, as well as some internal tools built upon those. If I'm feeling fancy and not pressed for time, I might use Python, R, Tableau, or GIS.

What do you like most about your job? What is the most challenging thing about your job?

I love the people I work with. AXIS has a great work culture and I have great respect for the vast industry knowledge of the global team with whom I work. I've been lucky enough to travel to places I never thought I'd get to visit for work. I had a very serious conversation about reinsurance treaties while floating in the Bermuda ocean with my manager and another colleague.

I love the flexibility of my current role - the fact that my ceiling of responsibility has only been how many hours I have in my day. I have re-written my own job description twice in three years. I think this also speaks to the importance of delivering on results. Good companies will recognize and reward that, and not just with more responsibility!

The most challenging thing about my job is accepting what I cannot change. The annoying things in the IT ticket process and more broadly, alluded to in something I love, that I can't take it all on all at once.

Does your job allow for a good work/life balance? If not, why?

It can. It's not life or death like being a fire weather forecaster. (Re)insurance helps society and economies recover after catastrophic events. I recognize the value in what I do, but appreciate the slight distance from it. My company offers a lot of great real work/life balancing tools, such as mindfulness training, a gym onsite at my location, a summer exercise challenge, fruit in the office, and continuing education opportunities.

I'll also preface this next section by saying that part of work life balance is recognizing what your personal priorities are, and what brings you joy and satisfaction. For me, that's work. I prioritize (and enjoy) work above family and friends and hobbies. This is my choice - it's your choice to live your life with other priorities. I like that I have a normal 9-5 schedule, no rotating shifts or being on call.

And here's where I start the series of "but's." My default working hours are actually 7-5, so that I can meet with European colleagues. Sometimes I have calls as late as 9pm with my Singaporean colleagues. There are a couple months per year where I work 12+ hour days. I've never pulled an all nighter for work, but I know people who have. If I didn't work quite so long, no one would die, and yet I do. In part, because my colleagues who I care about are online doing the same! But it's a vicious cycle, and not a terribly healthy one.

Over the course of your career what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you? 

The expansion of my role at AXIS is the most exciting part of my career so far. I started out with two interns in an office space that was converted from the end of a hallway. In the past three years, I have been allowed to grow my team to nearly twenty interns and four full time staff. We now have a much larger office space, too. The scope of my role and reach of my team has been allowed to grow to fit my capabilities. I'm very grateful to have been continuously rewarded and challenged in this way.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?

I am really happy with where I am today in my career. However, many of the lessons I like to share were really only apparent in hindsight.

If you apply to something you're already totally qualified for, what do you have to learn? I made this mistake a bit with my second job. Thankfully I moved to a company that recognized my individual contributions and potential, and allowed me to grow and shift accordingly, when it was clear I could add more than what I'd signed on for.

A corollary to the previous lesson, which you will find in insurance and private industry weather careers in general: the path upward might not always be super clear, and sometimes you may have to pave that path yourself. Your job title progression will eventually change from Analyst I, II, III if you want to keep moving up. Insurance especially is a career group where industry knowledge is an important pre-requisite to many roles. Catastrophe modeling can be a gateway to positions in underwriting, capital management, IT, product management, claims, and many other parts of the company.

What are some “must haves’’ on a resume if a person wants to gain employment in your field?

My top three skills to make it in (re)insurance/cat modeling: problem-solving skills, communication, and intellectual curiosity.

(Re)insurance of all fields, has fewer "must haves" than others, I think. The three skills that are most important to me as a hiring manager can't be listed as line items, they have to be demonstrated through a mix of experiences and to some extent, personality!

For other things, some quantitative background is very preferred, as is some amount of programming. For entry level roles, the language matters less than the ability to learn something else. Most weather folks will already have this, although learning how to present your experiences thus far for a non science (business) audience is part of the gap to mind.