Bringing diverse skills to life sciences
By Andrew Mills, Senior Statistician at Exploristics
I work within the Statistical Consulting group of Exploristics as a senior statistician. As a group we work within the pharmaceutical industry providing statistical support and consultancy for clinical trials. This is quite a flexible role that involves working with clients at varying stages of their drug development lifecycle, typically dealing with exploratory analysis and aiding in the design of clinical trials. In doing so, we help to inform on the type of data to collect and how to analyse it, as well as the number of trial subjects needed to ensure the chances of success are sufficiently high.
Growing up I always had an interest in mathematics. It was one of my strongest subjects in school which made it easier to enjoy. When considering what career I might want to go into, I had a much easier time knowing what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to work in a bank or be an accountant but beyond this I had little direction. Inevitably decisions had to be made but I still didn’t have a clear career path in mind when choosing courses for university. I enjoyed maths, I was good at it and there were career prospects in STEM; doing a straight degree in such a subject seemed like a reasonable step into the somewhat unknown.
I began studying maths at Queens University Belfast where during my second year, I started thinking more on what I was going to do once I graduated. Figuring that the best chance of getting some sort of job was going to come from the area of statistics, I focused on these topics. The biggest influential moment from here was studying survival analysis in my master’s year where I first saw the medical implementation of maths and statistics. I now knew what I wanted to do; I just needed the where. Shortly after this, Exploristics were presenting at a careers event where I was able to see a company that was implementing the statistical techniques I had been learning about and doing so within drug development. I knew this was the type of work that I wanted to get involved with.
Skip forward to the present; looking over the 5-6 years of my career so far it has been a privilege to work in such a varied environment across multiple disease areas. Not only have I had the opportunity to input into the development of novel and necessary treatments, but I’ve also been able to learn about the experiences of those living with these conditions. This has stemmed from a general overview into the disease setting to viewing the patient experience, how patients define treatment benefit and what aspects are important to quality of life when living with different diseases and chronic illnesses. Realising that the data we see are more than just numbers, they are individual experiences allowed me to take an even greater sense of pride in the work that I do.
STEM subjects may seem to many as very regimented, leading to ‘by the book’ careers where one spends their day following rigorous processes with no flexibility. To a certain degree yes, there are processes in place to ensure good practice is implemented and resulting conclusions are rigorous, ultimately within this field allowing patients to remain safe when being exposed to new treatment options. However, there is more to it than process. There is room to be innovative, to find an unexplored area, develop a novel compound, build a new software, and view clinical development in a new light. Who better to come into the field with fresh eyes than a new graduate? Someone who doesn’t yet conform to the status quo and will question processes as they learn. I felt that even in my earliest years along my career journey, I was able to input into discussion. Not necessarily providing any new technical insight but by bringing other skills to the table with fresh ideas and insights around how to present information. From a structure of a table of results to colour pallets we use within our KerusCloud heatmaps there is plenty of room for skills to shine outside of the technical specifications. Surprisingly, one apparent weakness became a strength in that I have a form of colour-blindness that can sometimes make coloured plots difficult to read. The strength came about as I was able to identify a need and influence an alternative colour palette for the KerusCloud heatmaps that would avoid this issue for other users.
As I have already mentioned, biostatistics wasn’t an area that I was even aware of in the not-too-distant past. To think if it wasn’t for a few key events what might I be doing instead? I’ve discussed my job with friends and family and there seems to be a lack of information provided to young people on what you can do with statistics, or what a “statistician” is. While this is just a single branch on an enormous tree, I feel that more young people could be attracted into STEM if they knew of the variety of jobs that fall under the “canopy”. Various opportunities to lead and to learn, not the mention the impact that can be made in different sectors of society.
One piece of advice I would try to pass on would be to ask more questions. Not questions to be sceptical of others but questions with the purpose to learn from them.