Health data scientists who are changing our world
New frontiers are being opened up by the UK’s health data scientists. They are from all parts of the UK and from many different backgrounds. Something that makes the field especially exciting is that almost from the start it offers the chance to carry out work that can make a real difference to healthcare.
It is also an area that actively seeks to recruit people from a broad range of different academic, research and professional backgrounds – recognising that they can enrich health data research by bringing new insights and approaches. These are the career stories of some of the people whose careers development has been supported by HDR UK as we seek to nurture the diverse and inclusive health data science workforce of the future.
Dr Lamiece Hassan – learning from social media
A social scientist by background, Dr Lamiece Hassan has found that learning health data science skills has been transformative for her research.
Some years ago she was investigating changes in mental health among inmates – something that involved a time-consuming process of making appointments through the prison service to meet, interview and follow-up people individually.
Being given access to datasets meant large amounts of information were instantly available. This, she recognised, was the way forward.
A three-year HDR UK Innovation Fellowship, which began in 2018, has allowed Lamiece to develop data science skills.
One focus has been on natural language processing which is allowing her to analyse unstructured social media data to gain insights about public views on health and care.
This can be invaluable as a way of finding out what people think, say and feel in the real world – potentially bringing very different insights to those gained from formal datasets, surveys or interviews.
In one case she was able to use public forums, including Twitter, to find out more about what e-cigarette users were thinking and saying about the risks of vaping at the time when news stories about potential lung damage were coming in from the USA.
Lamiece also has a deep interest in issues that have far-reaching consequences for health data science, and for healthcare overall, and has been researching public attitudes to the sharing of genomic data and the commercial use of health data.
Her training in psychology and psychiatry mean she is using health data science in new ways and bringing different ideas and understandings to the field.
In future Lamiece hopes to be able to use her expertise as a data scientist in mental health research.
Lamiece’s career path:
- BSc (Hons) Psychology, University of Sunderland
- MPhil Psychology, University of Sunderland
- PhD Psychiatry, University of Manchester
- 2016 -18 Public Engagement and Involvement Manager, Division of Informatics, Imaging and Data Science, The University of Manchester
- 2018-21 HDR UK Research Fellow, Division of Informatics. Imaging and Data Science, University of Manchester.
Dr Joram Posma – tackling high blood pressure
High blood pressure is a major healthcare issue, leading to 10.7 million deaths a year worldwide and severely affecting the lives of many more.
Understanding the relationship between diet, blood pressure and the workings of the human metabolism could make a huge difference for both prevention and treatment.
In 2018 Dr Joram Posma, now a lecturer in Cancer Informatics at Imperial College London, was awarded an HDR UK fellowship that gave him the freedom he needed to pursue research ideas that he had been developing for years and believed could make a practical difference.
Among the key issues he wanted to address was what people with high blood pressure are actually eating. This is a tricky issue as self-reporting by patients is often far from accurate.
The fellowship gave him access large-scale datasets, with information about thousands of people, that allowed him to compensate for under and over-reporting and to identify patterns.
Attending HDR UK Summer Schools, and taking advantage of other opportunities to meet and talk with peers and with experts from other fields, also enabled him to expand his own skills and knowledge, for example in genetics.
By taking a metabolic phenotyping approach Joram has been able to discover biochemical compounds (metabolites) in urine related to blood pressure and associated dietary patterns.
This has proved valuable in understanding the biochemical processes involved with the onset of high blood pressure and the homeostatic regulation of blood pressure.
Joram is now working with colleagues on the development of urine test that gives accurate information about what someone has been eating and drinking.
Going on a diet and changing eating habits can be notoriously difficult and the urine test could help healthcare teams to monitor and support patients who need to improve their diets and lose weight.
The test might also be useful in further research into how different factors affect blood pressure, and beyond that it might be used to investigate other issues such as malnutrition.
Joram’s career path:
- MSC in Chemistry cum laude, Radboud University, Nijmegen, 2011.
- PhD in Bioinformatics and Clinical Medicine Research, Imperial College, London, 2014.
- Postdoctoral research associate, Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College, 2014-2018.
- HDR UK Rutherford fund Fellowship, 2018.
- Lecturer in Cancer Informatics, Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, Imperial College, 2019.
Dr Gwenetta Curry – race and health inequalities
The journey from North Carolina to the UK has been a long one for Dr Gwenetta Curry – in career terms as much as miles.
She started out as a food science student before working in industry. This gave her direct insights into key issues like the immense difference in nutritional values between the premium and budget ranges (eaten by poorer customers) made by one of her employers.
Gwenetta returned to the academic world where she developed expertise in medical sociology and is now Lecturer of Race, Ethnicity and Health at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute. Not only that, but she has a monthly column in The Scotsman newspaper and has been interviewed by major national media including Channel 4 News for insights on issues such as Covid-19 and race inequalities.
Gwenetta recognised the value of large-scale data while she was studying the causes of obesity in African American women for her PhD at Texas A&M University. Census data and health records allowed her to push beyond assumptions that improved educational standards were a silver bullet for obesity. Instead she identified that the picture was far more complex and linked to a multitude of social and economic pressures and disadvantages.
In 2019 Gwenetta was awarded a fellowship in Edinburgh to use her skills as a health data scientist to study the relationship between race and health inequality. This came to the fore with the Covid pandemic. Gwenetta was astonished to find that official information on its impact was broken down in terms of age and sex, but initially lacked any information about race.
Her own research rapidly showed that there was a clear link, not least because many people from ethnic minorities were doing the jobs that kept society running, had little less access to furlough, government support and could not afford to take time off. They were also sometimes among the last to get adequate PPE. In some cases there was evidence of active discrimination.
Research carried out by Gwenetta and others, using data accessible through HDR UK, exposed how the pandemic affects different groups in society and, while the problem has not been solved, there has been some positive action and there is a great deal more awareness.
Gwenetta has also been working as part of the UNCOVER (Usher Network for COVID-19 Evidence Reviews) group to address the racial and ethnic variation in COVID-19 incidence and mortality. On top of this she is highly active in a variety of groups and organisations where she is using large scale data to tackle inequality. This includes working with trainee doctors to ensure that from the start of their careers they will have an effective understanding of the links between ethnicity and health in UK society.
Gwenetta’s career path:
- BSc in Food Science, North Carolina A&T State University
- MSc in Dairy Science, South Illinois University Carbondale
- Product developer in the food industry
- PhD in Medical Sociology, Texas A&M University, sociology department
- Lecturer in Racial Health Inequalities, University of Alabama
- Lecturer of Race, Ethnicity and Health, University of Edinburgh Usher Institute.
Joseph Best – making the tech revolution happen
Nowadays Joseph works with researchers to provide them with solutions to solve their tech problems. He is part of the team that built The University of Nottingham’s Computer Vision Lab GPU computing cluster, which has expanded from four to 50 GPUs. He’s also involved with CO-CONNECT, an extension the HDR UK innovation gateway that is bringing together the best of the UK’s data assets into an accessible format.
Growing up in rural Devon, Joseph had a love of computers from an early age – something that school failed to cater for. Following his GCSEs he left and went to work in an internet café and aimed to take A Levels. Life at the café proved more his cup of tea than college, not least because there were lots of people, including the owner, who were highly knowledgeable and happy to pass on their skills.
Ever since then Joseph has been very much at the practical end of the technology revolution, with many years of experience in providing people with practical solutions. This has included spells working for employers including BT, a London independent school and has also been involved with projects at the Apple HQ in Cork.
The expertise he has developed is essential to the future of health data research. Indeed, without having people there who can set up systems and software in the way that researchers need, it simply doesn’t happen.
Some years ago Joseph returned to Nottingham, initially doing general computing work in the School of Computer Science before progressing to more project-based activities that have involved him with everything from deep learning to robotics. Currently he’s part of the 15-strong interdisciplinary Digital Research Service team and involved in the development of a federated approach to data discovery, something that holds tremendous promise for the field.
Looking to the future Joseph has ambitions to go into senior management and possibly to take a degree.
In the meantime he has been pleased to be involved in HDR UK’s Black Internship Programme and is looking forward to passing on the skills he has learned to a new generation of young people.
Joseph’s career path
- ISP tech support
- BT tech support
- Technician, University of Nottingham
- IT systems administrator, University College School, London
- Field services engineer, Apple Systems, iConnect, Republic of Ireland
- IT systems engineer, University of Nottingham
- Digital research technologist, University of Nottingham.
Dr Dan Schofield – from string theory to NHSX
As an academic researching string theory, Dan’s early career involved exploring some of the farthest reaches of theoretical physics. Nowadays he’s part of the Analytics Unit at NHSX, and using his expertise as a data scientist to find practical solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing the health service.
Excellent qualifications meant that he had a range of career options, including continuing in academia, or even a shift into finance and banking. However, he got the greatest satisfaction from tackling real-world problems and the tougher the better. Joining NHSX, the specialist organisation driving forward the digital transformation of England’s health and social care services, in the midst of the Covid pandemic has certainly allowed him to fulfil that ambition.
Projects he has been involved with have included the development of the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging Database (NCCID) which is providing better ways to understand the virus and develop better care for patients with severe infections. Other work has been focused on supporting the wider Covid response programme.
For Dan some of the most exciting aspects of working with NHSX include the chance to support NHS Trusts with the tools they need to demonstrate the value of specific ideas for improving healthcare. Another is that he is helping provide the high-quality datasets that are essential for the work of present and future NHS programmes across the country.
And while he has joined NHSX at a moment where it’s facing huge challenges, Dan believes this is a highly rewarding time to be in health data science as it’s a fast-moving field that is playing a vital role in responding to the pandemic crisis.
Dan’s career path
- MMath in Mathematics, University of Durham
- MASt (Part III) in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge
- PhD in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, University of Swansea
- Postdoctoral researcher in Theoretical Physics, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
- Student mentor, Outwood Grange Academy
- Graduate Data Scientist NHS Digital
- Data Scientist, NHS Digital
- Data Scientist, NHSX
Shahriar Kabir Khan – a future researcher
The health data research sector is in search of promising young people with the talent and vision needed to tackle the major challenges facing healthcare.
Kabir joined HDR UK on a one-year data engineering internship aimed at giving him practical experience in the field after he completed an MSc in AI at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London.
It’s an opportunity that has done much to shape his thinking about his future career. On the technical side he has been extracting data from websites, analysing it and performing data visualisation. His work has meant that researchers have immediate access to data they can use.
Kabir, who came to the UK from Bangladesh in order to study computer science, has also been involved in developing a machine learning model and a deep learning model to automate tasks.
More broadly, the internship has given Kabir the chance to be part of a growing organisation – collaborating with different departments, chairing daily online staff meetings and carrying out a variety of other roles.
Having seen the practical difference his work is already to making to researchers he is now thinking about staying in the sector. Indeed, he is considering spending a couple more years gaining practical experience before applying to take a PhD with the idea of becoming a researcher himself.
Kabir’s career path:
- BSc in Computer Science from University of Hertfordshire
- Mobile Application developer at a market research company in London
- MSc in Artificial Intelligence (AI) at QMUL
- HDR UK Data Engineering intern.
Dr Musa Abdulkareem – complex AI-based technologies
Dr Musa Abdulkareem is a Principal Research Scientist at Barts Health NHS Trust working on pioneering research on the use of AI-based technologies to address complex healthcare problems. With Professor Steffen Petersen of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (Queen Mary University of London), they are working on improving the quality of diagnostic tools for ischaemic heart disease using AI through a grant partly funded by HDR UK. With cardiovascular disease causing up to 460 deaths in the UK per day, their work could save thousands of lives a year.
Musa is a chartered mathematician, and has background in applied mathematics, control systems, data science, artificial intelligence/machine learning and scientific computing. His first encounter with machine learning (ML), or more generally, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) was while he was studying control systems engineering during his MSc at the University of Sheffield. After that he completed a PhD in control engineering, working mainly in the areas of intelligent systems, structural optimisation, dynamics and control.
His next step was to become a Research Associate at Sheffield where he worked on data modelling and optimisation of material engineering processes and systems, before moving on to lecturing at the Department of Engineering, University of Leicester. Keen to move back to research, especially research projects addressing real-world problems, he moved to working as a Scientific Software Developer at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust before joining Barts Health NHS Trust London.
While he feels that AI has immense potential in healthcare, he believes the full potential can only be realised through multi-disciplinary research approaches that will bring together experts from medicine, mathematics, computer vision, computer science, AI, radiology and engineering.
Musa says it is an exciting time to be working in health data research as it offers an opportunity to make a positive real-world difference. Looking to the future, he ultimately hopes to see his research team’s work lead to ground-breaking AI applications in healthcare.
Musa’s career path:
- MSc(Eng), PhD – The University of Sheffield
- Research Associate, The University of Sheffield
- Fellow, University of Leicester
- Scientific Software Developer, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
- Principal Research Scientist at Barts Health NHS Trust, and Research Fellow (Honorary), William Harvey Research Institute (Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry).
Prof Spiros Denaxas – measuring excess deaths
Research by Professor Denaxas and his colleagues from Denaxas Lab, and elsewhere, proved significant in helping the NHS and policymakers learn from the first wave of Covid-19 in readiness for the second.
Using patient data from across England they created a tool showing the number of excess deaths from the virus based on age, sex and underlying conditions. Those with conditions such as heart disease were found to be five times more likely to die from the coronavirus.
The research (published in The Lancet and widely reported in newspapers such as The Guardian) had profound implications for government and the NHS – as did another project which examined the availability of hospital beds with mechanical ventilators. At a national level the supply was sufficient. However, admissions were often focussed on particular hospitals, which pushed them above safe occupancy levels for significant periods of time even though there were suitable beds available nearby. A subsequent paper showed that increased bed capacity was associated with a higher risk of death due to Covid-19.
As planners prepared for the second wave this research allowed them to identify ways to ensure that patients were better distributed and reduce the chances of hospitals being overwhelmed.
Each of these projects, some making use of millions of patient records, demonstrated the value of large-scale data and health data science in tackling immediate and major healthcare challenges.
As a teenager Prof. Denaxas was not anticipating a career in health data science, let alone at the forefront of efforts to control an immense healthcare crisis. He was interested in medicine but found his greatest aptitude was for computer science. Indeed, while he was studying for his doctorate he also worked for a software start up, something that brought him in contact with experts from companies such as Yahoo.
This private sector experience provided an invaluable grounding in issues such as data handling and management and best practices on programming. This gave him a head start as he began developing a career in which he has been developing innovative ways to use electronic health records (EHRs) to improve human health.
Now a Professor of Biomedical Informatics at the UCL (University College London) Institute of Health Informatics his research has addressed a host of issues such as identifying complex disease trajectories across the life course. He has also been using EHRs to look beyond the immediate effects of Covid-19, including co-authoring a BMJ Open examining the pandemic’s impact on cancer services.
Spiros’ career path:
- BSc in Computer Science, University of Bradford
- MSc in Information Engineering Systems, University of Manchester
- PhD in Bioinformatics, University of Manchester
- Private sector software engineer
- Professor of Biomedical Informatics, University College London
Dr Praveen Surendran – exploring genetic changes
Dr Surendran, a genetic epidemiologist, was awarded a Rutherford fund fellowship in 2018 to research the effect of genetic changes on human metabolism to better understand complex disease. Understanding these genetic changes that bring about changes in human biomolecular pathways could have major implications in terms of understanding the aetiology of complex diseases and for drug development.
Dr Surendran is an Indian citizen who studied at Bangalore University, Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Following his undergraduate and post graduate education, he completed a PhD in Computation Biology and Bioinformatics at University College Dublin and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland before joining the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit (CEU) in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge in 2013.
Praveen’s mentor at Cambridge encouraged him to apply for the fellowship which provided a good framework for his growth from being an analyst to a scientific leader in the area of human genetics. And most importantly the fellowship was split between national (UK/EU) and international researchers.
Praveen was impressed from the start of the fellowship application process. It was a very well-structured application process that allowed him to put forward a concise research proposal and sit an interview. It was only after the interview and a conditional offer, he had to submit a full application through the funders portal for approval which is the time-consuming process since this involves a lot of input from the administration and research office.
His fellowship allowed Dr Surendran to advance from being a Genetic Statistician, primarily involving analyses, to being a Senior Research Associate with the freedom and knowledge to define his own objectives and training needs to advance his research in the area of genetics and molecular epidemiology.
After what he regards as a highly successful three years of research with extensive support from HDR-UK and CEU, University of Cambridge, Dr Surendran is aiming to advance his research career with the knowledge and scientific achievement he gained during a phase supported by the Rutherford Fund Fellowship.
Praveen’s career path:
- Undergraduate and post-graduate in Biotechnology/Bioinformatics, Bangalore University and Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology and Indian Institute of Science – INDIA.
- Junior Research Fellow training at the Indian Institute of Science
- PhD in Computation Biology and Bioinformatics, University College Dublin (joint appointment with Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland)
- Research Associate (Genetic Statistician: 2013 – 2020) and Senior Research Associate (2020 to date) at the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit (CEU), Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge
- HDR UK Rutherford Fund Fellowship 2018
Jake Barrett – Internship opportunities
After achieving an MSc in Big Data from Queen Mary University of London, Jake Barrett was selected for a one-year internship with HDR UK.
It was not the direction he originally anticipated that life would take him. After a BSc in Maths at Keele University Jake went to work for a TV production company facilities department. He then realised that he wanted to be doing something more purposeful and which engaged his love of problem solving.
After being accepted for an MSc in Big Data at Queen Mary University of London, Jake discovered he had a fascination for dealing with datasets and a growing interest in health. His dissertation project embraced both – creating an AI to help with the detection of signet cell cancer.
The internship has seen him join the team which oversees the HDR UK Innovation Gateway, which allows researchers to explore datasets, tools, papers and other resources.
He has found the idea of using data to promote healthcare highly motivating. The internship is providing him with a multitude of new skills and opportunities to develop a network of contacts and get to know more about the opportunities offered by health data science.
Looking to the future he hopes that his academic background, technical skills and practical experience will position him for a permanent job in the sector, possibly as part of a data engineering team.
Jake’s career path:
- A Levels in German, Maths, Physics and further Mathematics
- BSc in Maths, Keele University
- Worked in facilities for a TV production company
- MSC in Big Data, Queen Mary University of London
- HDR UK internship
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