In the race to fulfil their ambitions of becoming a Doctor, aspirants overlook the most important attribute of a fulfilling career – Research, which could help them realise the vastness and inter-disciplinary nature of the medical field.

Swarali Tadwalkar, our next pathbreaker, Epidemiologist, works for a Health and Analytics firm that helps pharmaceutical companies understand the diseased population through a statistical lens, which could be the basis for new life-saving drugs.

Swarali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about choosing Epidemiology as a career since it involves her favourite subjects- Biology, Statistics and Mathematics while allowing her to stay within the field of medicine.

For students, do your research before you select a career and try to relate your career to what you enjoy studying ! Your career will no longer be a job.

Swarali, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Mumbai and was always fascinated by Biology and Mathematics. Very early on, I decided that I wanted to pursue Biotechnology Engineering. My parents were surprised about how I had found out about it and why I was so interested in a subject so unique. My father is an electrical engineer who has now retired from the software industry. My mother has done her graduation in chemistry and used to be a teacher.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My graduation is a Bachelors in Engineering (Biotechnology) and I did my Masters in Public Health (Epidemiology)

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

The multi-faceted nature of this career fascinated me. I always wanted to be in and around the field of medicine but never wanted to become a doctor, per se. So, I researched fields that involve medicine and mathematics which is when I came across Epidemiology as a field. I started reading about the World Health Organization, their research, their initiatives and I knew I wanted to be in a field that looks at the world a little differently. On any average day, I am thinking about human anatomy, medicine and how to interpret it statistically.

Tell us about your career path

Initially, I applied for Biotechnology Engineering through the entrance exams after 12th grade. While in my second year of engineering, I decided I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health. So, I applied to colleges in the United States for the MPH program. Thankfully, I got selected in almost all the colleges that I had applied to. I chose University of South Florida because of the extensive nature of their program.

At UoF, i was involved in several projects as a Field Epidemiologist, applying quantitative and Qualitative approaches to analyze teenage pregnancy. My next few projects were related to AIDS, Infectious Diseases, Data Analysis etc. Subsequently i worked as research trainee at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Undertaking these projects while pursuing my masters helped me understand various aspects of the field. This is one field where things differ for every therapeutic area. For example, cancer epidemiology is quite different from infectious disease epidemiology.

And this was just the beginning! As a public health professional, you have a lot of different career options.

In the early days of my career, i worked as an Evidence Analyst at Doctor Evidence and a Health Policy Fellow at Global Liver Institute. My role involved data collation (abstraction of data from literature) and suggesting policy changes, respectively.

Epidemiology is a diverse field which revolves around estimation of diseased population which often guides health policy recommendations. However, I have always been interested in statistics/math – basically, actual estimations of diseased population, so I preferred more technical aspects of the field. Currently, I help pharmaceutical companies understand diseased population and disease models. It involves a blend of biology, statistics and public health knowledge.

Sharing some links to understand what epidemiology means:

How did you get your first break? 

I engaged in a lot of online training and internships while in the master’s program. I explored different career prospects in government, pharmaceutical and health policy verticals. When I joined my current organization, I realized that the nature of work suited my capabilities. LinkedIn is a great resource – connect with the right people, explore new opportunities.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Biggest challenge in the field is the choice between governmental research and commercial research supporting pharmaceutical companies. It’s difficult to explore both the fields due to limited concordance.

Addressing this meant understanding what kind of research worked for me. Being in a research-oriented field generally requires multiple years of experience. So, I interned on both sides and realized that I enjoyed pharmaceutical research more than government research.

Challenge 2: If anyone is planning to study abroad, it is expensive and requires persistence. 

To address this, I engaged in extensive networking on campus and through LinkedIn. These relationships helped me address any shortcomings that I had in the field.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do? 

I work for a health and analytics firm and help pharmaceutical companies understand the diseased population.

My work mainly involves extensive statistical and analytical insight to understand diseases. We answer questions like how many people have disease A? How many patients will have disease b? Will smoking affect any disease incidence?

I acquired the skills through my education and current mentors. This job requires extensive statistical skills and prudent communication.

A typical day involves interaction with different pharmaceutical companies and understanding the different questions that these companies are trying to answer through various medicines that they develop.

Every day is a different day! 

I have not done any on-field work in the current situation. However, a few members of my team have created some forecasts pertaining to COVID19. It covers how many will get infected, what’s the curve like and mortality.

How does your work benefit society? 

Knowing that my insight helps drive decisions about drug research is exciting. Society benefits from this research because new life-saving drugs are researched and developed on this basis of this.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My work on an intricate rare condition that helped a company understand the disease prevalence and needs of the patient.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Stay persistent, explore different career tracks and do what you love! Don’t settle for anything less.

Future Plans?

I plan to pursue a PhD and study further in this field to attain more knowledge. If presented with an opportunity, I would like to do some ground work to help provide medical aid to those in need and those who can’t afford healthcare.