Please tell us about yourself

Sheetal Sawant is a second-year MPH student in biostatistics. She was born in Mumbai (still known as Bombay to many), the biggest city in India, and went to school in a scenic suburb on the outskirts of Mumbai. Her journey in the field of health care began when her sister joined the School of Medicine to pursue bachelor’s degrees in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery. Four years later Sheetal followed her sister into the world of medicine and health care and joined the School of Dentistry. She completed her bachelor’s in dental surgery from the prestigious Maharashtra University of Health Sciences, and practiced dentistry for about three and a half years in Mumbai.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

The preventive and community dentistry experiences that Sheetal gained during her bachelor’s internship at St. George Government Dental College, Mumbai, along with her firsthand experience serving the community under the guidance of an experienced dental surgeon in Mumbai, further strengthened her interest in the field of dental public health. She moved to Omaha in 2009, and was accepted into the College of Public Health (COPH) MPH program at UNMC in fall 2010. She has been a graduate assistant in the COPH Department of Biostatistics since spring 2011.

How was the experience at COPH?

 The warm and welcoming atmosphere is what Sheetal admires most about the COPH. The key features that attracted her to consider pursuing her MPH were the friendly and helpful nature of the faculty and staff and the funding opportunities that are provided to the students. According to Sheetal, the opportunity to work on real-life projects related to her field of interest via the service-learning/capstone experience and internship opportunities are the highlights of the program. She is currently working on two projects, one with the Omaha District Dental Society and another with the Office of Oral Health and Dentistry, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Sheetal believes that her coursework and her work on real-life projects have helped her get a better taste of and be well prepared to further her interest in the field of dental public health.

Tell us about your work

 I am currently working as a biostatistician in the Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) of the School of Medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

Our data focuses on immune responses to HIV infection and vaccines, from human and pre-clinical studies.   The most interesting part about this position is getting to collaborate with individuals with varied backgrounds and training, both onsite and offsite, and to manage diverse datasets and requests on a daily basis. I mostly help with data management, quality control, and analysis for studies that fall under three domains: the Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, and some non-human primate studies. Working together with this great team comprising laboratory personnel, statistical core members, project managers dealing with different studies, program coordinators, supervisors, and associates at the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research & Prevention (SCHARP, Seattle, Washington) is the best.

What you value most about your time in our program: 

I believe that the experience and training (like SAS programming, data analysis, presentations, seminars, etc.) gained at the COPH is a foundation stone of my journey. Specifically, working on my capstone project (with the ODDS) and on research other than thesis credit (with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services) were the most notable times. These projects helped me understand the significance of proper data collection and data management before starting with data analysis, and also the importance of collaboration.

Overall, the opportunities to multitask, work in groups, discuss concepts with professors, and work on community projects is what I value most. For example, I really got a feel for raw datasets, and how much thought (like study design) and processing (data cleaning/quality control, etc.) is involved before and after generating large datasets, much before they are ready for analysis, so that reliable interpretations can be made. I also learned the importance of simplifying concepts when dealing and interacting with varied audiences.

All of these skills gained at UNMC were very valuable and prepared me well for the internship at UNC and my current position at Duke.

Advice for current students?

Make the maximum out of the learning opportunities available in the college. Don’t hesitate to ask questions when you don’t understand or to discuss your ideas and help others as well; it is critical that you make sure your basics are clear now when you have this chance. Try to collaborate with others as often as you can, and put these public health skills to practice as soon as possible. Not only for biostatistics majors, but everyone: try to get your base SAS certifications done when in school (it is a great addition to your skill set and resume), and consider working on others’ statistical packages and clearing higher level programming certifications too, if possible, earlier in your careers. Keep learning and advancing your skill sets while in school, so that after school you will easily adapt to the pattern of learning new skills based on your job requirements.