Turning Data into a STEM Career

Three Abbott data scientists show how their work is impacting healthcare.

REACHING YOUR POTENTIAL     |    Feb. 13, 2020

Do you know the critical role that numbers and data play in diagnosing and treating some of the world's most serious health issues and diseases? Three Abbott data scientists — Krista Birch, Jessica Tower and Cierra Hall — are sharing their experience in working in a field that is highly driven by analytical data to ultimately provide better products to people around the world.

Discover what inspired them to pursue STEM fields, how their work is helping people make better health decisions, and what you can do now if you're interested in creating positive change through a career in STEM.

Discovering the possibilities

It took time for Krista, now a principal data analyst with Abbott’s diagnostics research and development team, to discover her calling. Enchanted by the oceans and sea creatures she learned about in school and on television, she wanted to be a marine biologist. As she was making her college plans, a good heart to heart talk with her dad about that lifestyle opened her eyes to the fields of statistics and genetics. "I realized I always had a passion for discovery through data," she explains. What's more, Krista started a part-time job in a lab around the time HIV was becoming a global health crisis, which helped her realize she wanted to pursue a career where she could help others.

Jessica, a principal data scientist with Abbott’s advanced algorithms team, chose a career that reflected the values of her parents.  “I wanted to find a career path that allowed me to help others while continuously learning,” Jessica says. A career in chemical engineering in the healthcare industry was a logical path. Jessica saw math and science as fields that were constantly evolving and bringing solutions to so many different aspects of people’s lives.

For Cierra, a senior quality engineer with Abbott’s diagnostics team, it was the realization that math could help people understand the world around them that led her to bioengineering. "I was fascinated at the complexity of even the smallest organisms. Something as simple as pond scum is so interesting if you look at it under a microscope," she remembers.

Though all of their careers involve math, one of the major misconceptions, Krista says, is "that you have to be a math genius. For what I do, a fundamental understanding and affinity for statistics will set you in the right direction."

"It’s easy to feel that trigonometry and geometry in high school is abstract and boring," Cierra admits. "Someone told me once, 'You don't have to love that class; you just have to get through it.' I'm glad I did because it was an important building block to more advanced math classes. All the different math classes I’ve taken have helped me to understand how to analyze data and implement algorithms that are fundamental to my work now."

Using math to help save lives

For all three data scientists, persistence through their math, statistics, and science classes has paid off. Working on Abbott’s diagnostics team, Cierra, Jessica and Krista all use math daily, in a variety of ways.

One of Cierra's major tasks is setting quality control specifications on the Alinity and ARCHITECT platforms. These platforms are diagnostic instruments that run tests for laboratories, hospitals and blood centers in select markets. They can test a patient sample, such as blood, urine or cerebrospinal fluid, to detect whether there are markers for inflammatory disorders or cancer, or the presence of proteins or drugs.

"Treatment decisions, such as whether or not to change a patient's course of care, are often influenced by diagnostic test results," Cierra says. "They're also used by blood centers to make sure the blood supply remains safe for patients receiving donated blood." For these reasons, it's extremely important that the instruments she works on are calibrated correctly for accurate results and that the products they use are stable until their expiration date.

"It's like if you were to buy milk at the store and it's gone bad, but the expiration date says it's good for another week," she explains. "Math allows us to evaluate our products to make sure they are safe and effective."

As a data scientist, Jessica uses math to create actionable information from data. "Data science and analytics help us make the right decisions, based on facts, and helps us see things early," she explains. "It also allows us to make connections that might not be intuitive."

For example, to determine whether a valve on an instrument needs replacing, Jessica and her team will come up with a predictive model. "We use the data collected from our instruments to find the signatures of failure and train models," she explains. "We call models that predict part failure 'prognostic health monitoring algorithms.'" This type of algorithm, which is also used in the aeronautical and wind turbine industries, helps labs, hospitals and other customers schedule service on an instrument before it fails.

Krista, who monitors and analyzes instrument data, says knowing how to interpret the numbers allows her to produce visuals, such as graphs, that help the research and development team make more informed decisions.

"We use descriptive analytics to explain what has happened; diagnostic analytics to understand why something happened; predictive analytics to forecast what will happen; and prognostic analytics to tell us what to do about what is going to happen," she explains.

"It is extremely rewarding to know that my work helps to ensure the safety of the world's blood supply and the accuracy of tests that are used to help diagnose things like heart attacks, cancer and infectious diseases," Krista adds.

Getting into STEM

No matter what career you go into, all three data scientists agree math is just one of the many skills you'll need.

"One of the biggest challenges for data scientists and analysts is being able to effectively communicate their findings," Krista says. "I put my data into graphs and tables so that my audience understands the key takeaways."

Krista has become passionate about "storytelling with data," challenging herself to make every page of her reports easier to understand and consume, especially for non-data analysts.

Jessica and Cierra both encourage asking a lot of questions. Krista agrees, adding that it's OK to get help: "I spent a lot of time with my physics and calculus teachers' assistants when I was in college," she laughs.

"Be tenacious," Cierra says. "That way, when there's a problem that isn't straightforward, you can clarify it. And when something is difficult or frustrating, you don't tend to let go until it's solved."

All three also recommend finding teachers who can help you through the bumps in the road. "Don't be afraid to tackle hard classes or assignments," Cierra urges. "Sometimes, our perception of things can make them seem more difficult than they are."

"Any career around math or computer science is going to be a career with a lot of opportunities," Krista emphasizes. "As we know, there's more data now than there's ever been. That's not going to stop. There are tons of opportunities today and in the future, and even in non-science career paths, like marketing, finance and human resources, expect their employees to have more knowledge about data science and analytics."

So, what's the most important thing you can do if you want to enter a STEM field? "The biggest thing," Krista says, "is to be a curious person — and not to be afraid of math."