APS News

May 2021 (Volume 30, Number 5)

What is it Like Being a Data Scientist?

Data science is one of the fastest-growing career fields and is expected to increase by more than 30 percent during the next 10 years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. APS Director of Industrial Engagement Dan Pisano recently interviewed Jie Ren, a Data Scientist in the Global Digital Analytics & Technology Group for Merck & Co., to gain insight into this exciting career that bodes well for scientists with physics backgrounds.

Dan: Where do you work and why did you choose to pursue a career there?

Jie: I work at Merck & Co., Inc., a US-based biopharmaceutical company. I am in the Global Digital Analytics & Technology group; my job focuses on integrating remote monitoring technologies for clinical trial use and developing digital biomarkers for drug development. I’ve always been interested in pushing the real-world application of my physics background. Merck, as a big player in the pharmaceutical sector, was a great choice for me to achieve this goal.

Dan: Did you start out as a data scientist? What other positions did you have?

Jie: I did not start out as a data scientist. Instead, with my soft matter research background, I joined Merck as a material scientist and started in the formulation development function. From there, I sharpened my skills on pharmaceutical product development and also gained insight into the entire drug development process. I then pivoted to digital health development, in which I now leverage data analytics skill sets that were gained in my physics education.

Jie Ren

Jie Ren

Dan: What is a typical day like for you as a data scientist?

Jie: My role is to lead testing of digital technologies, from experimentation to data analysis, in hope of generating new insights into patients’ disease experience. To achieve this goal, I may take on various roles throughout the day as needed: as a program manager, a platform builder, an algorithm developer, or a scientific mentor. On a technical front, I help build data flow and employ various cloud-based tools to collect, transform, and analyze sensor-derived data. I spend my nerdy moments chewing on ML/DL algorithms and discussing them with the team. Most often, these are highly cross-functional and collaborative efforts and wouldn’t succeed without good project management. I also spend a good part of my time serving as a program manager and coordinating efforts among various internal and external colleagues.

Dan: How did your background in physics prepare you for your career as a data scientist?

Jie: My physics background has set up a firm foundation for me with coding and data analytics skill sets; that makes it very easy for me to take on the role as data scientist. A physics education has also equipped me with quantitative thinking skills that are different from that of colleagues with a statistics or engineering background, which has added unique value to my work.

Dan: What advice would give someone who is interested in pursuing a career in data science?

Jie: Data science is an interdisciplinary field that combines programming, math, and statistics, with domain knowledge in various application fields. The domain knowledge (of your preferred industry sector) is an anchor for a successful data science career, and one would need to demonstrate a certain level of fluency and interest in such domains. Such knowledge could be new to physics students, though, as physics by itself is not an application-centric discipline. If you are interested in moving away from academia, I suggest exploring the various industry sectors as early as possible to find the one(s) that fits your interest and build up your knowledge accordingly.

Dan: What are some challenges you have encountered in your career and how did you overcome them?

Jie: In my personal experience, I have navigated a career that is very different from my physics background, and my daily tasks constantly call for learning new disciplines (e.g., fields such as chemical, engineering, statistics, clinical, medical, IT, regulatory, etc.). This is both fascinating and challenging at the same time. Justifying myself for a new task, or a new role, calls for not only an educational background (as my education background lends little insight to my skill sets), but also extra steps to generate evidence for my capability. I think passion is key in overcoming such challenges and staying on course in terms of career development. I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to work on problems that I am truly passionate about, which I believe is a great energy source for my career.

About Merck:

  • Merck & Co. is a $48 billion global biopharmaceutical company that was founded 130 years ago.
  • The company has focused on developing and bringing to market medicines and vaccines for many of the world’s most devastating diseases.
  • Merck employs cutting-edge data science to innovate new ways of communicating, measuring, and interacting in the development of new pharmaceuticals.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine

May 2021 (Volume 30, Number 5)

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Articles in this Issue
APS Honors Members for Outstanding Science Policy Advocacy
What is it Like Being a Data Scientist?
2021 Kavli Foundation Special Symposium Tackles the Frontiers of Computation
New Laser Testing Approach Detects Coronavirus in Minutes
Neil Ashcroft 1938-2021
2021 PhysTEC Conference Talks Teacher Training Online
Programming Matter to do a Computer's Job
Commentary: Staying the Course in Science Policy Advocacy during COVID
This Month in Physics History
FYI: Science Policy News from AIP
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