Q&A with Rachel Tavolacci, Impact Data Specialist

Rachel Tavolacci went from teaching herself Excel to joining Washington STEM as our Impact Data Specialist. Somewhere in between, she had a realization: data is about storytelling.


Rachel and Cramer, the “wild child” of her cats.

Why did you decide to join Washington STEM?
Put simply, I stumbled across the opening for my position and was immediately excited about the opportunity to use data for equity work and support the education sector. The influence of our education system was made very clear to me at a young age. I grew up witnessing my mom’s passion for teaching and the significant impact she had as an educator. However, I also came to understand the barriers that educators, support staff, and students face in offering and receiving an equitable education.

Joining Washington STEM felt like the perfect alignment of my passions for data and equity. The approach of Washington STEM, especially the methodology of our Impact Team, really resonated with me. When I learned more about the organization and the people who work here, it only solidified my excitement!

What does equity in STEM education and career mean to you?
Equity in STEM education and career means ensuring that every person has access to the resources and support they need to achieve their educational and career goals. This requires acknowledging and eliminating systemic barriers to enable true self-actualization and self-determination.

Why did you choose your career?
I’m not sure if I can say I fully chose it, but rather stumbled upon it very luckily! I always knew I wanted to work at the intersection of human behavior and social structures but wasn’t sure what that could look like. Throughout my education and early work experiences, I realized that data could be a powerful tool to understand and influence social issues. The ability to tell compelling stories through data solidified my passion for this career. It’s incredibly fulfilling—and fun—to see complex information transformed into something accessible and actionable.

Can you tell us more about your education and career path?
I graduated from the College of Charleston in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in psychology. During high school and college, I worked in the food and beverage industry, and after graduating, I briefly tried substitute teaching, which deepened my desire to be involved in the education sector. I credit those experiences for giving me a foundational understanding of the qualitative and human-centered side of my work.

I discovered that my “why” for data was rooted in its storytelling potential.

My understanding of the technical side of data really deepened when I moved to Seattle and started working at the nonprofit FareStart, where I worked with a team focused on food security projects. To support in optimizing our work, I started learning about Excel and data visualization in Tableau. This experience really kicked-off my interest in the technical aspects of data, like data cleaning and manipulation. As I took on larger projects, I discovered that my “why” for data was rooted in its storytelling potential–ultimately leading me to where I am now.

What inspires you?
This is an easy one! The people that support me and encourage me to be my most authentic self, especially my family and partner (and of course our cats), will always be top of that list but right next to them are any signs of resiliency.

Taste-wise, I don’t really like mushrooms, but in all other ways I’m fascinated by them and what they can symbolize. I remember learning about the mycelium networks (essentially how mushrooms communicate with one another underground) and neuro-plasticity (how the brain can adapt and change in response to experiences and learning). They really shifted the way I understood the world. I find so much motivation and inspiration from nature’s and humans’ ability to adapt, work together, and innovate–those are the things that make me geek out!

What are some of your favorite things about Washington state?
I’ve only been out here for about 3 years, but I find something new to love every single day. A couple of my favorite things are taking a walk through Lincoln Park, trying out a new ice cream flavor at Frankie and Joe’s (salty caramel ash is my favorite), all the farmers markets, and of course, the vampire warning signs in Forks.

What’s one thing about you that people can’t find out about you through the internet?
I’ve been indoor skydiving four times—maybe one day I’ll give real skydiving a try but for now, floating over a giant fan is fun enough!