How I became… a data scientist
Dr Rebecca Pope freely admits that she became a data scientist “entirely by accident”. The head of digital innovation and data science at healthcare giant Roche “never really had a plan” to achieve such a position.
“I’ve always had one goal: to work in a job where I can use my quantitative skills to make the world a better place,” she says.
Although Pope excelled in maths, science and electronics at school, she opted for most arts subjects at A level. But a year before she was due to take the exams, a discussion in her philosophy on self-perception sparked the interest that would shape his career.
Pope became fascinated by questions such as “what does it mean to be conscious?” and ‘how do we understand color?’ She devoured popular science books, like The human brain: a guided tour by Professor Susan Greenfield, and “fell in love with this thing called neuroscience”.
Too far in her studies to change courses, she took a year off and spent it gaining further A-levels in chemistry and biology so she could study psychology at the University of Manchester. After graduating with a first class degree, she started working as a research psychologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) in London. She used the data collected in this role for her part-time studies for a doctorate in clinical neuroscience.
Pope’s introduction to data science came through his work in neuroimaging. Much of his work at NHNN involved analyzing images of people’s brains over time and processing that data. This has led to an interest in big data analytics and its potential uses in healthcare.
She joined an IBM program that allowed her to work with its artificial intelligence tool, Watson Health, before joining KPMG, where she eventually became director of data science and AI.
Although her work has increasingly been shaped by technology, she has remained focused on how she can help people.
“My job at Roche is to work with the NHS, governments, regulators, clinicians and patients on how we can incorporate cutting-edge technologies that we are used to using in our daily lives, such as intelligence, in health care,” says Pope. “It hasn’t been cracked on a large scale yet.”
Pope’s expertise as a data scientist has allowed him to change lives. It was particularly in demand during the Covid crisis.
“What we are building, in partnership with the health ecosystem, has the potential to affect everyone in society, which is a huge responsibility,” she says. “You only have to look at the difficult times we are going through to see it. It’s what gets me up in the morning. I feel so privileged to be part of it. »
Along with giving him the satisfaction of finding solutions to important problems, Pope’s role aligns with his natural inclination to challenge the status quo. At school, for example, she had successfully argued with her teachers that it was a waste of everyone’s time forcing her to study a foreign language at GCSE level when she could have been concentrating on another subject in which she excelled.
As frustrating as it may have been for his teachers, the instinct to question long-held assumptions is crucial in his work.
“The good thing about having ‘innovation’ in your headline is that you can be a disruptor – that’s my job,” says Pope, who acknowledges that it can sometimes make people “a bit uneasy. ease”.
Ensuring that this discomfort is dealt with caringly and effectively is an aspect of her job that she can find challenging.
Pope explains: “One thing I constantly have to check is that I like to run fast. It’s part of the job of a data scientist: you prototype and fail quickly. But what often delays the process is not a technological problem; it is a multi-faceted thing, which also involves people and culture.
She offers examples such as working with the healthcare system to refine a patient journey or introducing technology that has never been used in a particular way before.
“The cadence at which I want to grow as a technologist has to align with the cadence of the system. Sometimes it’s okay to stretch that a bit, but often it’s very difficult to go to people who can be completely overwhelmed by their efforts in the middle of the pandemic and say, “I have this great idea; are we going to work on it now? You have to have some sensitivity.”
Other than that, what other key attributes are required in the role? “Really, all you really need is curiosity and the ability to learn,” says Pope, who welcomes the introduction of science degrees open to undergraduates without a science background. “You don’t need to be defined by the fact that you learned, say, biology in school. You can learn facts and equations, which is not difficult in itself. Solving difficult new problems is difficult.
Pope rejects the idea that there could be a particular type of person who would thrive in a role like his. During her time at IBM, she worked with people from a wide range of fields – and “one of the best data scientists I know is a historian”.
She points to the codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II to crack the Nazis’ Enigma cipher system. “If their recruiters had told them, ‘You’re coming to solve Enigma,’ no one would have been qualified to do it. What they actually asked was, ‘Can you solve a crossword?’ »
Another important skill, Pope says, is communicating your findings effectively. The ability to program and understand computation can be learned relatively easily, but “the ability to tell a story is the true art of data science.”
Perhaps most importantly, data science can provide direction to members of the workforce who are often underserved: neurodivergent people. Pope was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age – and the general opinion then was that anyone with this learning difficulty would have limited career opportunities.
In fact, the reverse has happened for Pope, who says, “It gives me a kind of superpower: to spot things and see patterns.
Today, she’s passionate about sharing the message that dyslexia didn’t hold her back. “Being neurodiverse is actually very positive in this area because you’re supposed to think differently. It’s a role where you can find a loving home to not be wired like everyone else.