Interview with Dr. Erika Braithwaite*

Student Section Editors

Ilvy Goossens, Student President | Simon Fraser University, Canada

Maria Aparcero, Student President-Elect | Fordham University, USA

Laura Dellazizzo, Student Secretary | Université de Montréal, Canada

In the first edition of the Spotlight feature, we highlight female entrepreneurship in 'Big Data'. Thank you to Dr. Erika Braithwaite for sharing your path from psychology over epidemiology to CEO of your own company. Have a wonderful read! Dr. Braithwaite obtained her bachelor's and master’s in psychology and then completed a PhD in Epidemiology at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Initially interested in becoming a clinical psychologist, Erika found herself intrigued by, and enamoured with, data sciences. Her journey from the quantitative social sciences to the health data science field has helped her gain a host of expertise related to study design, such as clinical trials, and statistical modelling techniques drawn from causal inference and econometrics.

Q: What is “Precision Analytics” and how did you come up with that business project?

Dr. Braithwaite: A year and a half ago, my co-founder and I began as statistical consultants. Our job was to use the most cutting-edge machine learning algorithms, and statistical methods for clients (physicians and scientists) who were in the private or public healthcare sectors. Our first question was always: “Tell me about your data”. We learned about so many inefficiencies that were making it difficult for our clients to get the most of their data. This is a widespread problem, globally over 65% of organizations in the healthcare sector underutilize their data. While a lot of effort goes into data collection, organizations are struggling to find meaning in their spreadsheets. Even though we began as consultants, we found that 80% of the work we were doing could be automated since we were building the same three types of pillars that are crucial in any data-driven organization: storage, analytics, and communication. We ended up building a cradle-to-crave interactive tool that seamlessly and securely stores and processes data. It allows users to display all the plots and graphs generated by cutting edge analytics.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your educational background and how you educational background and how you became interested in health and data sciences?

Dr. Braithwaite: I was initially interested in becoming a clinical psychologist, but I realized about halfway through my bachelors that I loved numbers! So, I pursued a master’s in psychology to further develop my research skills. I decided to pivot for the Master’s degree and do an epidemiology degree because I felt that it would provide me with even stronger statistical and methodological training. I became interested in social epidemiology and my thesis included elements related to mental health, but also involved sophisticated analyses - so it was a perfect balance for me. I wrote my dissertation on the racial health inequalities that resulted from mass incarceration in the United States. It allowed me to integrate some of the issues that I cared about: forensic issues, mental health, race, and justice, while also using analytical approaches from econometrics and causal inference. The problems I faced during my PhD (i.e., data too big to run on my laptop, version control, and data visualization) made me more interested in “data science”; the intersection of data engineering and data analysis.

Q: What made you deviate from the 'usual' clinician or academic paths to start up your own analysis business?

Dr. Braithwaite: While I loved the technical aspect of research, I realized early on that I was not a strong writer and dreaded publishing … Cornerstones of academia! Realizing that academia was not for me left me feeling frustrated and lost. I did not have a strong sense of the types of career opportunities that existed outside the academic world. In the hopes of getting some clarity, I visited the career planning services at McGill. The counselor made a table with five possible job sectors: 1) Academic, 2) Non-profit, 3) Government, 4) Private sector, and 5) Entrepreneurship. Together we assembled a pro/con list based on: tasks I liked to do on a day-to-day basis, stability, and financial comfort. Through the process of elimination, we somehow ended with entrepreneurship. Keeping that meeting in the back of my head, I pushed through my doctoral studies hoping that my career path would become clearer as time went on. After finishing my PhD, I continued to work as an analyst and statistical consultant while applying for jobs in the private sector and considering the possibility of a postdoc. Nothing ever felt like it was the right fit. Kathryn Morrison (my co-founder) was in a similar position as me. She and I had joined forces to offer tutoring and consulting services since this was something we both did during our PhD’s. We liked the face-to-face contact, the immediate gratification of helping people solve problems, and working with data. Our first growth tactic was to take out ads for our services and advertise them in universities and hospitals. We had a great business that grew very quickly. One day, we stumbled on an opportunity to do a large contract and the rest is history.

Q: How do you balance work and self-care? What advice do you have for students in that regard?

Dr. Braithwaite: Balancing work and self-care is difficult during graduate school because of its inherently solitary structure. Despite all the support a student can get, a thesis is supposed be a ‘sole author’ body of work. I struggled finding balance b e c a u s e e v e r y m o m e n t I wasn’t working or studying were moments that my thesis was not advancing. Incorporating downtime, socializing with friends, and physical fitness were things I attempted to do, with varying success. It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that graduate school takes a heavy toll on students’ mental health. It can be a lonely journey and it’s easy to get caught up in feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, which are then compounded by an unbalanced life. My personal experience showed me that taking good care of myself was key to feeling productive. My master’s supervisor was the first person to tell me that if I was not feeling productive, don’t waste time sitting at my desk. One of my committee members during my PhD told me to learn my work rhythm and to trust it. Learning to respect my productivity cycle was liberating because it helped me to stop comparing myself to others.

Q: Perhaps related, could you share your experiences with and views on women in sciences?

Dr. Braithwaite: My experience as a woman in sciences has been an interesting journey. While I was a student, there were always woman around me, both as colleagues and as leaders/mentors. Since transitioning to the private sector, specifically the startup ecosystem in STEM, I’ve noticed that there are many women in STEM working in startups but under 20% of all startup founders are female. It suggests that there are women who have both the technical skills and the desire to work in the startup world, but few take on a leadership role. The question that often comes up when talking about women in sciences is that of bias. From my own experience, I’ve encountered on rare occasions skepticism from some who questioned my technical capacities. More commonly, I noticed more subtle tones of condescension when dealing with executives from large, male-dominated companies. On the flip side, I’ve benefited from the initiatives dedicated to elevating women in entrepreneurship. Many organizations are offering various opportunities in an effort to help increase the number of women in the field.

Thank you, Dr. Braithwaite, for sharing your reflections on your graduate and further career path and shining a light on your work on preventing coercion in mental health settings!

Connect with Dr. Braithwaite on Twitter: @ea_braithwaite

*This Spotlight interview was published in the 2019 IAFMHS Newsletter, Winter Edition.

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