How a once self-proclaimed ‘inveterate technophobe’ ended up becoming the Data Science Clinical Research Fellow at UCLH

By Helen Walker  
I am probably one of the last people of a generation who can remember having one enormous plastic breeze block taking pride of place in their primary school classroom. My recollection of information technology in my otherwise stellar secondary school was of it being paired with single science for GCSE, further alienating me from gaining much-needed computer knowhow. Brick phones would become smart phones; I would become none the wiser. At no point on the conveyor belt of my foundation years or later during core training was data science on my radar. Not at careers fairs, not on recruitment websites, not from word of mouth. So it still surprises me that I currently find myself as the Data Science Clinical Research Fellow at UCLH.   

It is a well acknowledged fact that future direction of medicine lies in the integration of technology with our clinical and academic work. We need new generation of motivated and skilled clinicians to engage with this. And, as you look over your shoulder for this ‘techno guy’, bear in mind I mean you. In a world where a cyber-attack completely crippled those NHS Trusts who were still using Windows XP, a 17 year old operating system, this might seem rich, but a key to transforming the overstretched healthcare system we so dearly love is by using data that we have had all along more effectively.  

I am embedded in a critical care team which aims to deliver high quality patient care, both on and off the shop floor. The opening to become a data science fellow came about as part of a Trust wide investment into junior clinicians to stimulate research. My initial reservations, and under-confidence in my computer skills notwithstanding, it is the smartest career move I have made to date. The fellowship affords me the opportunity to work on projects within the Critical Care Unit using enabled data, that is, data that can be easily used, sourced, moved and combined.  

My newfound ability has permitted me, with assistance, to overhaul and focus on the important variation in morbidity and mortality data on our unit. Because I’ve braved a seemingly male dominated area of science, I’ve been able to shrug off my IT troglodyte shadow and boost my CV with grant submissions, abstracts and poster presentations.  I would encourage anyone with a smattering of curiosity to have a go at coding – it’s the gift that keeps giving. I am lucky enough to work in an institution that continually pushes boundaries and thrives on discovery. Whilst it would be churlish of me not to take advantage of that, I am very aware that this is not the state of play in the majority of UK Trusts. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  

In present day practice, medical professionals need cutting edge acumen (1) in fields outside their own.    Just as a greater number of clinicians are studying for MBAs for managerial roles, it is self-evident that understanding more about data science is paramount. I sincerely believe that even a rudimentary understanding of coding can empower clinicians to be the force for change that their trust needs and make best use of big data.  

That giant plastic breeze block in my primary school class room could be seen as a reminder of the great improvement in public health in the 19th century gained from sewers & hospital building.  I see data science as one of the keys to moving our archaic systems forward in the 21st.