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Q&A with a cancer researcher

When the media announces a research finding — a way to prevent dementia, a new treatment for diabetes, a cancer screening test that you should have — have you ever wondered who is behind the new discovery? Maybe it was a handful of doctors or scientists? Or maybe it was a health researcher? Chances are, it was a combination of both.

Health researcher?! What does that mean?

Day-to-day health researchers could be working on projects that aim at preventing diseases through an analysis of real patient data. They use historical data to find patterns that can solve the challenges that the health industry are facing – for example, the relationship between two types of cancer, or the likelihood of a certain person to get a disease.

Sound like you?

Well, Meet Dr. Priscilla Rogers, she spends managing a health research team at IBM Australia to unlock data patterns and insights to help health professionals better understand disease, treatment and diagnosis.  From Mechanical Engineering to health research, we spoke to her about what exactly she does, why she loves it and why you should consider doing it too.

Q: What do you do?

A: “Well, There has been an explosion in health data. What we know is that every person will generate the equivalent of 300 million books worth of health data in their lifetime, and it is about using this data to innovate the health care industry.

What this does, this access to data, is create an opportunity for us to access new insights that effect the way we diagnose and treat patients in the health care sector.

So, that is the crux of what I do.

I am looking for correlations and insights that can help influence the decisions of key stakeholders in the health industry. These are patients, specialists, doctors, insurance companies even, the government.

So, for me in my role, it is about using technology to drive innovation in the health care sector. In scenarios where there are no solutions in the market, we will help develop a better understanding that will help prevent disease or to help treat medical conditions.

My primary role is to look for challenges in the sector. I am looking for challenges in the industry that need a solution. Once we identify a problem, we discuss whether there could be a solution, and if there could be, we open a project – which can potentially range from research to development. Then we launch that in the industry.

Essentially I am a problem solver.

Q: How does it all work? How do you get assigned a research project?

A: My team and I work very closely with the industry, and speak to key stakeholders to get their insight into problems of the industry – because when technology and experts come together, that is when innovation can happen. Experts understand the challenges, and we can work with them to design solutions.

So, it could be an oncologist; and he may want to know the differences between left and right colon cancer, he may have a hypothesis but may not be sure. So then, once when we understand what that challenge is we will look through the existing data and try to make meaningful patterns that will drive insights into the problem.

One of the projects that we are working on is aimed at helping alleviate the damaging affect of melanoma on Australians. We want to solve challenges that effect Australians and unfortunately in this country melanoma is a huge problem.What we know is that it skin cancer is 98% preventable if you can pick it up early enough. But the process of diagnosing melanomas is fairly subjective because there are such minor changes to someone’s symptoms and so someone who is not a specialist may not pick up on them.

My team are trying to develop analytics and algorithms that can pick up the subtle changes to provide a confidence score that will help the sector make better decisions on a case-to-case basis. This way, we can help more Australians avoid suffering skin cancer.

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Q: What effect with technology have on the health industry?

A: We are in a new area of cognitive computing. These are computers that can learn, they can understand, and they can make assumptions. They are able to take unstructured data and then make patterns. For example a computer can sift through biomedical literature and then make recommendations to oncologists that are treating patients.

Q: Are computers taking over the industry?

A: No, not at all, they will just aid us in making more efficient processes. There is an absolute shortage of STEM skills in the health sector. And this is only going to grow. While the health research industry is perfect for aspiring scientists, engineers and mathematicians we hire people from business, marketing, the arts – medicine. But beyond the skills that translate to innovation and technology, you need to be someone that is bold thinking, that accepts nothing short of pushing the limits, and someone who is motivated and passionate about making a difference.

The work you will be doing will impact patients and people’s lives.

Q. How did you end up where you are today?

I never would have thought I’d end up where I am today.

When I finished school I loved maths and science and I end up in engineering quite blindly. Though what I learnt in my engineering degree is that the industry is about problem solving.

In my final year, I found a new area: which is micro industry. At that small scale, the physics is completely different. Without something that small, gravity doesn’t exist for example – things are sticky. So I undertook research in a PHD and I discovered the application of diagnostics.

I sorted my red and white blood cells using sound, So by applying sound I could have my red blood cells going one direction, and then my white cells going another. I never knew this was a pathway into the health care industry, but I loved it.

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