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.

  • A social scientist by background, Dr Lamiece Hassan has found that learning health data science skills has been transformative for her research.

    Health data scientists like Lamiece Hassan are transforming care
    Dr Lamiece Hassan

    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.

     

  • 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.

    Health data scientists like Dr Joram Posma are transforming healthcare
    Dr Joram Posma

    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 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.

    Health data scientists like Dr Praveen Surendran are transforming healthcare
    Dr Praveen Surendran

    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.

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